Scientists have discovered the oldest known Neanderthal family group, they weren’t just brutal cave dwellers
A new discovery in a Siberian cave reveals an intimate portrait of Neanderthal family life and shows that it may be time for Homo sapiens to shed their superiority complex once and for all. Scientists have outlined the habits and preferences of this very ancient family group using a DNA sample from Neanderthals who lived in the Chagyrskaya cave in southern Siberia. The technique used by the researchers is that of genetic sequencing , perfected by the 2022 Nobel Prize winner, Svante Pääbo: the scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Antrhopology carefully analyzed the fossil remains and described, in more or less detail, the lifestyle of the Neanderthals.
From these discoveries it emerges that Homo Neanderthalensis had an appearance not so dissimilar from us Sapiens: he was about 160 cm tall, with strong and stocky arms and legs and a prominent jaw, a physical structure suited to the harsh climate of the areas in which he settled (a compact and robust body retains heat better). Skin and hair colors toothey followed certain rules of adaptation: red hair and very light skin, to absorb the sun’s rays as much as possible. The most surprising discovery, however, is that our Stone Age cousins were not brutal cave dwellers, on the contrary, they were quite evolved: they manufactured sophisticated tools, yarns, artistic objects (this suggests the development of an artistic and symbolic language) they created complex social hierarchies and buried their dead with care.
To get all this information, the anthropologists who analyzed the fossils had to travel to Siberia, but it was worth it: they found bone remains – with complete DNA – of 11 individuals and incomplete DNA of others. It is a rare occurrence to find all these well-preserved remains on the same site.
Lifestyle and social habits
The discovery site can be classified as a hunting camp also consisting of the cave, in which to take shelter. Camp, frequented when necessary and located along the river, which also became a meeting place for different groups. The community that inhabited the cave – about 54,000 years ago – consisted of about 20 individuals, related to each other: about 20 Neanderthals, including a father, his teenage daughter, a young male identifiable as a nephew or a cousin and an adult female , second-degree relative (perhaps an aunt or a grandmother): in short, a family made up of 11 people, 5 males and 6 females, including 6 adults and 5 children and adolescents. However, all were part of the same nuclear family: in particular, two individuals share half of the DNA, which makes them first-degree relatives (we weigh father-daughter).
The researchers also identified an unexpected pattern of female migration between different strands of genetic ancestry. That is, the fossils found have a purely mitochondrial DNA (the genetic portion transmitted by the mother) compared to the genetic material transmitted by the paternal line (Y chromosomes), this suggests and convinces of the fact that in the Neanderthal communities it was the women who moved to the various groups , bringing genetic diversity, while men rarely changed social group. The most likely explanation is that most of the female Neanderthals in the small Chagyrskaya group came from another community and moved to join their mate’s family.
As already mentioned, some scholars believe that such sites could become meeting places for different groups, and it was in these meetings, in which hunting trips were made, that women left their family of origin to join new groups. On these occasions the encounters between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens would have taken place.
These are some of the elements that give us back the family portrait of history.