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Researchers uncover the first Neanderthals that are related to each other


One thing that makes modern humans special is our ability to build communities. Now, researchers have new findings on how Neanderthals - our distant cousins - built clans of their own. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Neanderthals get a bad rap as cave-dwelling thugs with clubs. Laurits Skov says you really need to get that picture out of your head.

LAURITS SKOV: You know, this image of Neanderthals being brutes is not quite accurate. The more we learn about them, the more like humans they actually appear to be.

BRUMFIEL: They can make tools, sew clothes, and they lived in communities. But what did those communities look like? Well, that's been a little bit of an open question until now. Skov is a paleogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and he's been looking at Neanderthals found in two caves in central Russia. Well, OK, he hasn't actually been to the caves.

SKOV: I really wanted to, but then 2020 happened with the COVID pandemic and now with the war between Russia and Ukraine...

BRUMFIEL: But he's been studying the bones - drilling tiny holes and then extracting their DNA. It's delicate work.

SKOV: One drop of my sweat would outweigh the Neanderthal DNA molecules a million to one or something like that. So you've got to be really careful.

BRUMFIEL: Publishing in the journal Nature, Skov and his colleagues revealed the genetic codes of 13 Neanderthals living in the caves, including several who were related.

SKOV: A father and his daughter - his teenage daughter, in fact.

BRUMFIEL: As well as a boy around the age of 10 who had a female relative - maybe a grandmother or an aunt. Lara Cassidy of Trinity College in Dublin says this is not the first time Neanderthals have been sequenced. What makes this study so special is that these 13 individuals all lived in or around the same place at roughly the same time.

LARA CASSIDY: That is really exciting because what we have is a community, and we can start to maybe understand a bit about how these communities worked.

BRUMFIEL: Cassidy, who is not a researcher on the study, says the family relations are intriguing, but she'd like to know more about what tied others in the cave together. Humans, for example, build social groups of unrelated individuals.

CASSIDY: A unique thing about Homo sapiens is flexibility. We seem to be able to put ourselves together in all sorts of different configurations. It would be nice to know if Neanderthals were as flexible.

BRUMFIEL: The genetic data isn't quite good enough to see if these folks are distant relatives or in-laws or just friends. Laurits Skov says he's working to get a clearer picture. There's one other mystery. How did the father and daughter and the boy and his relative die? Skov says there aren't any clear clues, but he suspects starvation.

SKOV: Life back then was rough. They survived by hunting bison. And you can imagine if, one year, they don't manage to hunt and catch all they need - you know, maybe something sad like that.

BRUMFIEL: These individuals lived about 55,000 years ago, at a time when humans were on the rise and Neanderthals were disappearing.

SKOV: There's very few left.

BRUMFIEL: But he says they didn't go completely extinct. Humans from outside Africa contain, on average, about 2% Neanderthal DNA. In other words - at least sometimes it seems - humans and Neanderthals found each other and built communities together. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.