Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove, Whores and Ale, The Other McCain and Bacon Time for the Rule Five links! As always, if I’ve missed your link, let me know in the comments and I’ll add you to the list.
For some time now paleo-anthropologists have presumed, based on some loose evidence, that the Neandertal lived in small family groups. Now some new genetic evidence corroborates that view. Excerpt:
The similarities among the males suggest they belonged to a population of only hundreds of men who were fathering children—about the same number of breeding males as seen in endangered mountain gorillas today. “If you were to think of this Neanderthal population like [populations today], they would be an endangered population,” Skov says.
In contrast to the Y chromosome and nuclear DNA, the mtDNA of both males and females was relatively diverse, implying that more female ancestors contributed to the population than males. That could be a founder effect, in which the initial group included fewer fertile males than females. Or it could reflect the nature of Neanderthal society, says paleogeneticist Qiaomei Fu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who heard the talk. Either “fewer men than women contributed to the next generation, or women moved more frequently between groups,” she says.
To Skov, the evidence suggests the latter. He says modeling studies show it’s unlikely that a small group of migrants expanding from Europe into Siberia would include mostly females and few males. Instead, he thinks these Neanderthals lived in very small groups of 30 to 110 breeding adults, and that young females left their birth families to live with their mates’ families. Most modern human cultures are also patrilocal, underscoring another way that Neanderthals and modern humans were similar.
Posth cautions that 14 genomes can’t reveal the social lives of all Neanderthals. But he sees ominous signs in the males’ low diversity. The end was fast approaching for our closest cousins: In just 5000 to 10,000 years, they would be gone.
Unlike the Neandertal, present evidence indicates that our own ancestors around this time were more gregarious, living not in small bands but roaming the countryside in large, extended groups – tribes, if you will – and even migrating seasonally. Could that be one of the reasons behind our success and the Neandertal’s eventual extinction? Maybe – the migration aspect would very likely have led to a higher degree of cultural and technological cross-pollenization, which is supported further by the explosion of technology in tools, weapons and art that happened around this time.
It’s sad that the Neandertal are gone (although some of their genes live on in anyone with ancestors outside of sub-Saharan Africa.) They were an admirable people, who lived for between 300,000 and 450,000 years in a howling wilderness, much of that time during major glaciations. They were tough and, in their own way, sophisticated, and now we’re getting better glimpses into what their family lives may have been like. I do love the image linked above, from the article; a Neandertal father carrying his little daughter, just as any modern father might do, although the modern father would probably be spending a day at the park rather than carrying slabs of mammoth meat back to the cave.
Fascinating stuff. Improving techniques for recovering mDNA and nuclear DNA will doubtless lead to more such findings.