First known Neanderthal family found in cave in Russia

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Scientists have discovered for the first time the remains of a closely related Neanderthal clan, including a family – a father and his daughter – in a Russian cave that offers a rare window into antiquity.

The clan was discovered in one of the largest genetic studies yet of a Neanderthal population, published this week in the journal Nature. Scientists suspect they perished together in the mountains of southern Siberia some 54,000 years ago, perhaps tragically from starvation or a great storm. They lived on a rocky bluff at the edge of the known Neanderthal range, which stretched from the Atlantic regions of Europe to central Asia.

The social organization of Neanderthal populations is not well understood. The latest research suggests that, at least in Siberia, Neanderthals lived in groups of 10 to 20 individuals – similar to today’s mountain gorillas, which are an endangered species.

The study was conducted by a global team of scientists including Svante Pääbo, a Swedish geneticist who received the Nobel Prize in Medicine this month for his work mapping our genetic connections to Neanderthals.

Nobel prize for Swedish scientist who decoded the Neanderthal genome

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In contrast to many archaeological sites, which contain fossils built up over long periods of time, genetic studies on 11 Neanderthals found in the Chagyrskaya Cave – in the Altai Mountains, near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China – showed – that many of them were close relatives, suggesting they all lived around the same time.

Chagyrskaya Cave is basically a moment 54,000 years ago when this community lived and died in this cave,” said Richard G. Roberts, a scholar at the University of Wollongong in Australia and one of the study’s co-authors, in one Interview.

“For most archeological sites things accumulate slowly and tend to be chewed up by hyenas or something like that,” he said. “You don’t really get websites that are that full of material. It was packed with bones, Neanderthal bones, animal bones, artifacts. It’s a moment literally frozen in time.”

The scientists used DNA extracted from fossils found in Chagyrskaya Cave and from two other Neanderthals found in a nearby cave to map relationships between the individuals and look for clues about how they lived .

Chagyrskaya Cave is perched high on a hilltop and overlooks a floodplain where herds of bison and other animals likely once grazed, Roberts said. In addition to the remains, researchers found stone tools and bison bones buried in the cave.

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Genetic data from teeth and bone fragments showed the individuals included a father and his daughter, and a pair of second-degree relatives, possibly an aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, Roberts said. The father’s mitochondrial DNA — a set of genes passed from mothers to their children — was also similar to that of two of the other men in the cave, he said, indicating they likely shared a common maternal ancestor.

“They are so closely related, it’s like a clan actually living in this cave,” he said. “The thought that they could go on for generations after generations seems unlikely. I think they probably all died very short of time. Maybe it was just a terrible storm. You are in Siberia, after all.”

The study also found that the genetic diversity of the Y chromosomes (which are only passed down the male line) was much lower than that of the mitochondrial DNA in the individuals, which the authors say suggests that Neanderthal females are more likely to migrate than males . This pattern can also be seen in many human societies, where women marry and move away with their husband’s family before they have children.

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Previous work by Swedish geneticist Pääbo has shown that Neanderthals interbred with prehistoric humans after migrating from Africa, and traces of these interactions live on in the genomes of many modern humans. During the pandemic, he found that a genetic risk factor linked to severe cases of Covid-19 was passed down from Neanderthals, carried by about half of people in South Asia and about 1 in 6 people in Europe.

The authors say the sample size of the latest study is small and may not be representative of the social life of the entire Neanderthal population.

“If only we could reproduce [the study] in a few other places we would then have a real understanding of how Neanderthals lived their lives, perhaps a clue as to why they went extinct and we didn’t,” said Roberts, the Australian scholar.We are so similiar. So why are we the only ones on the planet?

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