Essay / Kinship

The Family Lives of the Last Neanderthals

Two anthropologists explain a novel genetic analysis of ancient DNA and artifacts that suggests Neanderthals in Siberia lived in close-knit communities.
An illustration features a person with a protruding forehead, long brown hair, and a beard wearing an animal skin over their shoulders and holding a wooden spear. A child with similar long brown hair and clothing sits on the person’s shoulders.

An illustration imagines what a Neanderthal father and his daughter might have looked like.

Tom Björklund, Author provided

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

OUR CLOSEST EVOLUTIONARY RELATIVES, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), were once spread across Europe and as far east as the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia.

Yet more than 160 years since the first Neanderthal fossils were unearthed in Europe, little is known about the group size or social organization of Neanderthal communities.

Using ancient DNA, a new study provides a snapshot of a Neanderthal community frozen in time.

With our colleagues, we show a group of Neanderthals living in the Altai foothills around 54,000 years ago consisted of perhaps 10 to 20 individuals. Many of them were closely related—including a father and his young daughter.


The first genetic clues to Neanderthals were obtained 25 years ago from a fragment of mitochondrial DNA, which is found in cell structures called mitochondria rather than in the cell nucleus.

Subsequent mitochondrial DNA studies and genome-wide nuclear data from 18 individuals have sketched the broad brushstrokes of Neanderthal history, revealing the existence of many genetically distinct groups between about 430,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Our new study is the first to analyze ancient DNA from the teeth and bones of multiple Neanderthals who lived at around the same time. The fossils came from archaeological excavations of Okladnikov Cave in the mid-1980s and Chagyrskaya Cave since 2007.

These caves were used by Neanderthals as hunting camps. The remains of animals such as bison and horses are abundant, and more than 80 Neanderthal fossils were also found in Chagyrskaya Cave—one of the largest such collections anywhere in the world.

Both sites also contain distinctive stone tools that bear a striking resemblance to artifacts found at Neanderthal sites in Central and Eastern Europe.


To paint a detailed picture of the genetic makeup and relatedness of these Neanderthals, we analyzed mitochondrial DNA (which is passed down the female line), Y-chromosomes (passed from father to son), and genome-wide data (inherited from both parents) for 17 Neanderthal fossils—the most ever sequenced in a single study.

The teeth and bones came from 13 individuals: 11 from Chagyrskaya Cave and two from Okladnikov Cave. Seven of the Neanderthals were male, and six were female. Eight were adults, and five were children or adolescents.

A body of water lies in front of a broad expanse of trees that surround a large rock buttress that holds a cave.

The Chagyrskaya Cave in the Alta Mountains of Russia lies inside an expansive rock outcropping.

An opening of a cave is shown in which the entrance is tall and narrow.

Okladnikov Cave (in Russian: пещера Окладникова) is a paleoanthropological site located in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in Soloneshensky District, Altai Krai in southern Siberia, Russia.


Among them were the remains of a Neanderthal father and his teenage daughter, and a pair of second-degree relatives—a young boy and an adult female, perhaps his cousin, aunt, or grandmother.

Although the nearby site of Denisova Cave was inhabited by Neanderthals from as early as 200,000 years ago, the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov Neanderthals are more closely related to European Neanderthals than to the earlier ones at Denisova Cave.

This finding is consistent with a previous genomic study of a Chagyrskaya Neanderthal and the presence of distinctive stone tools at Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves that closely resemble those found at Neanderthal sites in Europe.

We also found the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals share several heteroplasmies—a special kind of mitochondrial DNA variant that typically persists for less than three generations.

Taken together with the evidence for their close family connections, these indicate the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals must have lived—and died—at around the same time.


Our analyses also revealed this Neanderthal community had extremely low genetic diversity—consistent with a group size of just 10 to 20 people.

This is much smaller than the genetic diversity recorded for any ancient or present-day human community, and is more like that found among endangered species at risk of extinction, such as mountain gorillas.

The Chagyrskaya Neanderthals were not a community of hermits, however. We discovered their mitochondrial DNA diversity was much higher than their Y-chromosome diversity, which can be explained by the predominance of female (rather than male) migration between Neanderthal communities.

Did these migrations involve Denisovans, who occupied Denisova Cave repeatedly from at least 250,000 years ago to around 50,000 years ago?

A map of Eurasia in gray coloring has highlights for regions where Neanderthal remains have been found.

This map shows the known Neanderthal range in Europe (blue), Southwest Asia (orange), Uzbekistan (green), and the Altai Mountains (violet), as inferred by their skeletal remains (not stone tools).

Nilenbert, Nicolas Perrault III/Wikimedia Commons

Denisovans are a sister group to Neanderthals, and they interbred at least once. This happened around 100,000 years ago, producing a daughter from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Yet even though Denisovans were present at Denisova Cave at around the same time as the Neanderthals living at Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves, we found no evidence for Denisovan gene flow into these Neanderthals in the 20,000 years leading up to their demise.


In recent years, multiple lines of evidence have shown Neanderthals possessed technical skillscognitive capabilities, and symbolic behaviors as impressive as those of our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors.

Our genetic insights add a new social dimension to this picture. They provide a rare glimpse into the close-knit family structure of a Neanderthal community eking out an existence on the eastern frontier of their geographic range, close to the time when their species finally died out.

A photograph features a person with brown hair, mustache, beard, and small smile who is wearing a blue collared shirt and sitting in front of a few large green plants.

Laurits Skov did his Ph.D. in bioinformatics at Aarhus University during which he developed a method for detecting Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry in modern humans without using the archaic reference genomes. He used this process to find archaic segments in 27,566 Icelanders and 89 Papuans. During a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, he further studied archaic introgression in ancient genomes and researched Neandertal communities. He studies archaic introgression in South Asian populations and the evolution of human germline mutation rate in the Moorjani Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

Richard “Bert” Roberts is the director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage at the University of Wollongong, where he is also a distinguished professor. He is interested in past interactions between hunter-gatherers and their environments in Africa, Asia, and Australia. Much of his career has been spent investigating turning points in human evolution and dispersal, including the timing, causes, and ecological consequences of archaic and modern human migrations. Given his multidisciplinary research interests, Roberts publishes across the fields of geochronology, archaeological science, human evolution, and terrestrial ecosystems.


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