How Ancient DNA From Siberia Gave Scientists A Glimpse Into The Lives Of Neanderthals

Genetic evidence has offered new insight into what life was like for Neanderthals, an ancient relative of modern humans that went extinct around 40,000 years ago, as CBS News reports. The DNA yielding this outcome was recovered from Neanderthal remains found in the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov Caves in southern Siberia. Over many thousands of years, both locations are known to have housed early human populations, and before that, communities of Neanderthals and Denisovans, another extinct human subspecies, according to Nature.

Now that these clusters of Neanderthal remains have been tested, scientists better understand intimate aspects of what Neanderthal daily life was like.  A few key study findings also suggest these modern human relatives were far more like us than once thought. What made this opportunity to study ancient Neanderthal DNA so remarkable is that these remains were found from multiple individuals who all lived around the same time and place. According to CBS News, study lead author Laurits Skov said, "If there was ever a chance to find a Neanderthal community, this would be it."

Neanderthal DNA was extracted from bones and teeth

CNN reports that the Neanderthal DNA studied was extracted from an assortment of bones and teeth from several individuals. In addition to supporting the theory these individuals lived their lives in close temporal proximity to one another, what was revealed also suggests that the male Neanderthals had been a part of the community much longer than the females. This is possibly explained by female Neanderthals migrating across Neanderthal populations to mate — as if by marriage — while males stayed and reproduced in one area. That's a way-of-life called patrilocality still found among some hunter-gatherer societies today.

CBS News also writes these caves were not likely a permanent residence for these individuals but perhaps temporary shelter that they repeatedly returned to while hunting. Moreover, many Neanderthals tested were related, including possibly parents and children, as well as an aunt and cousin, and all lived in groups of up to 20. This indicates that Neanderthals may have maintained family structure. These populations also showed little genetic diversity, on par with certain endangered species today. That fact is not thought to be true across the whole Neanderthal species at that point in history, and scientists have found other more genetically diverse Neanderthal populations from around the same period.

A father and teenage daughter lived together

Nature also reports that among the Neanderthal DNA sequenced was a father and a teenage daughter, suggesting that some Neanderthal families stayed together well into adolescence. At least two males were found to share the same maternal lineage. In total, 11 complete and partial genomes were constructed. Referring to these findings, study lead author Laura Skov said (via Nature) "​​It makes you wonder what the familial relationship between these individuals were and how they were interacting with each other ... It is a little glimpse into a Neanderthal family."

According to CBS News, in addition to Neanderthal remains, fossils and stone tools were also found in the caves. As CNN notes, scientists involved in the study stress these findings might not hold true over the entire Neanderthal species. But as Nature notes, other Neanderthal studies also suggest that females of the species left their families to mate, even possibly with modern humans. On that note, director of the Natural Sciences Museum of Barcelona, Spain and Neanderthal researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox said (via Nature) "I think we can say this social structure was present in most Neanderthals." Other experts caution that more research is needed to know for certain.