An artist's impression of an Neanderthal girl riding on her father's back, and a photo of a Neanderthal skull from the Museum's collection

Two of the remains found at the site were those of a father and daughter, and can now be compared with other specimens found in locations such as Gibraltar (right). Image adapted from © Tom Bjorklund and © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (All Rights Reserved)

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Siberian remains could represent first-known Neanderthal community

The first remains of a Neanderthal family may have been discovered, shedding light on the society of our ancient relatives.

A new paper reveals that the ancient hominins lived in small groups of around 10 to 20, with females moving between the different communities. 

The discovery of a group of Neanderthal remains dating back more than 50,000 years has almost doubled our genetic knowledge of the ancient humans.

Genetic analysis carried out on the bones and teeth of 13 individuals brings the number of sequenced Neanderthal genomes to more than 30, as well as providing insights into the social organisation of the species.

A new paper detailing the results reveals multiple families living as part of a small community in a Siberian cave, with women moving between nearby groups. The study compares this to similar observations from modern-day gorillas, though warn that direct comparisons carry many caveats.

The authors hope that future discoveries will reveal more Neanderthal communities and demonstrate whether their small size was the exception or the norm.

Dr Laurits Skov, the lead author of the study published in Nature, says, 'These individuals were living at the same time, which means that they likely came from the same social community. This is very exciting.'

'It allows us, for the first time, to use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community.'

Dr Benjamin Peter, who co-authored the research, adds, 'Our study provides a concrete picture of what a Neanderthal community may have looked like. It makes the Neanderthals seem that much more human to me.'

An oblong shaped stone flake tool

Neanderthals are known to have made tools, such as this flake tool. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (All Rights Reserved)

What was Neanderthal society like?

While Neanderthals, more formally known as Homo neanderthalensis, are our closest relatives, there is a lot we don't know about them. Without written records, oral history or the remains of buildings, it's very hard to say what a Neanderthal society would have been like.

However, we can make a few inferences from what we do know. Neanderthals are thought to have grown up rapidly, with the quick emergence of teeth allowing them to eat energy-rich foods that could power their growth.

As a result, young Neanderthals would have weaned from their mothers and began eating solid food months before our own species, Homo sapiens, could. They would have grown into stocky individuals, which is believed to have helped them to conserve heat in the cold climates where they are known to have lived.

Their stockiness may have helped them in catching prey, with 120,000-year-old fossils of deer found in Germany showing evidence of spear wounds. As this is more than 60,000 years before the arrival of Homo sapiens, it suggests that Neanderthals could work in teams to hunt and kill the animals, as well as creating their own weapons.

This belies the fact that although their name has become a by-word for stupidity, the Neanderthals would have shared a number of activities with our own ancestors. There is evidence they developed complex tools, and some suggestions that they may have created their own forms of art and jewellery.

They were also something of a hit with their fellow hominins. While they were a distinct species, Neanderthals retained some ability to breed with other hominins, though it is uncertain how fertile the resulting hybrids were.

A 90,000-year-old bone of a girl discovered in Denisova cave, also in Siberia, contained DNA that showed the individual had a Neanderthal mother and a father from another ancient human species called the Denisovans.

Neanderthals and our human ancestors came into contact more recently, with fossil teeth in Jersey from around 48,000 years ago showing characteristics of both species. Genetic evidence, meanwhile, suggests as much as 2% of the DNA of non-African people living today was inherited from the Neanderthals.

Together, the evidence suggests that the Neanderthal society and culture was more developed than they have perhaps previously been given credit for. The discovery of a group of individuals believed to have lived at similar times to one another gives the opportunity to investigate their society further.

River passes by a rocky outcrop in woodland, which contains Chagyrskaya cave

The remains of 13 Neanderthal individuals were found in Chagyrskaya cave. Image © Bence Viola

How were the Siberian Neanderthals related?

The Neanderthal remains were discovered in the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves in Siberia, around 100 kilometres from Denisova Cave.

Neanderthals are known to have briefly occupied the cave 54,000 years ago, and the researchers extracted DNA from a combination of 17 bone and teeth specimens found at the site to see what could be learned.

Six of the specimens belonged to women, with the remainder belonging to men. Analysis of the genomes of both groups revealed that the males were more closely related than the females, with around 60% of the women thought to have joined the group from other communities.

The group showed signs of inbreeding, with individuals being more likely to have inherited copies of the same gene from both their parents – a state known as homozygosity. The researchers noted that the Neanderthals' level of homozygosity was similar to that in isolated mountain gorilla populations today.

Randomly selected genes were also compared to assess how related the different individuals were, which allowed the scientists to infer up to two degrees of relatedness. Second degree relatives include aunts and uncles, grandparents and half-siblings.

One individual, known as Chagyrskaya D, was a relative of a number of other individuals. In addition to a possible distant cousin, the researchers identified that Chagyrskaya H would probably have been his teenage daughter.

Meanwhile, a young boy known as Chagyrskaya A was likely to be the nephew or grandchild of Chagyrskaya L. The other individuals found in Chagyrskaya cave had no significant difference in genetic divergence from any other, which suggests they all probably lived at around the same time.

While the remains found in Okladnikov cave in this study were unrelated, tests on sediment DNA from the Chagyrskaya cave showed that two samples were more similar to Okladnikov individuals than those in the same cave. As a result, the communities in the different caves probably interacted.

In addition to relationships with other Neanderthals, the genetics of the Chagyrskaya individuals contained portions of Denisovan DNA, with the researchers estimating that a Denisovan relative existed around 12-48,000 years earlier in their family tree.

However, it appears that there was limited interaction between the inhabitants of Chagyrskaya and Denisova Cave after that point, with no evidence of cultural or genetic exchange in tens of thousands of years.

It may be that the remoteness of these sites, towards the edge of the area where Neanderthals are found, may have meant that the groups were unnaturally small or insular.

Finding other Neanderthal communities from other parts of Europe and Asia would help to clarify what these groups would normally have been like, and give us further clues about the personal lives of our ancient relatives.