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The ‘Neanderthal’ Ways Of Living Lives

Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) had quite a modern outlook on life, especially family-life, thousands of years ago. An international research paper, published in the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal Nature on October 19, 2022, has explained the family and the sex lives of Neanderthals, who used to roam on the Earth 54,000 years ago. In one of such pictures, it is seen that a Neanderthal father carrying his daughter on his shoulders.

Researchers have learnt a lot about the Neanderthals by sequencing the genomes of 13 Neanderthal fossils recovered from southern Siberia. Those 13 people used to live in caves in southern Siberia’s Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov regions. Among them, seven were men, six were women, and the remaining five were children (or adolescents).

According to the researchers, women used to leave the cave more than men, mainly to find sex-partners. They are of the opinion that the Neanderthals used to choose members of their own group to breed with. Although other subspecies, such as Homo sapiens, Hominines or Denisovans, used to live next to them; the Neanderthals did not choose them as partners.

In order to get a detailed picture of the genetic makeup and relatedness of the Neanderthals, the researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA (passed down the female line), Y-chromosomes (passed from father to son) and genome-wide data (inherited from both the parents) among all the 17 Neanderthal fossils. Hence, it possibly is the most ever sequenced in a single study. The researchers carried out the study on the teeth and bones of 13 individuals, including 11 from Chagyrskaya Cave and two from Okladnikov Cave. Among them were the remains of a Neanderthal father and his teenage daughter, and also a pair of second-degree relatives, a young boy and an adult female, who was his cousin, aunt, or grandmother.

Researchers are of the opinion that the Easternmost Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov Neanderthals are more closely related to European Neanderthals. Furthermore, the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals used to share several heteroplasmies, a special kind of mitochondrial DNA variant that typically persists for less than three generations. These indicate the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals must have lived, and died, at around the same time, taken together with the evidence for their close family connections.

Watch: The Sex Lives of Neanderthals

Evolutionary geneticists have opined that the Chagyrskaya Neanderthals were not a community of hermits. Their mitochondrial DNA diversity was much higher than their Y-chromosome diversity. In other words, there was a predominance of female (rather than male) migration between Neanderthal communities. These migrations might also involve Denisovans, who had occupied Denisova Cave repeatedly from at least 250,000 years ago to around 50,000 years ago. Denisovans are a sister group to Neanderthals, and they interbred at least once around 100,000 years ago, producing a daughter from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Laurits Skov, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), has said that the research paper gives a clear idea of what Neanderthals looked like. “They were more human than us,” he stressed.

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