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23 December 2010
New insight into Neanderthal family groupings

Following the discovery of the remains of a group of Neanderthals, in a cave in Northern Spain, analysts have uncovered new information which leads to the belief that rather than living as groups of individuals, they lived in small, related families. The discovery dates back to 47,000 BCE, towards the end of the Neanderthal Era. At first the remains of this mass murder were thought to be victims of the Spanish Civil War, when the cave was used as a hide-out for Republicans. In total, over 1,800 bone fragments were found, mixed up in gravel and mud, which suggested that they had died elsewhere, outside the cave. There were no bones or remains of any animals found in the cave and the only other finds were fragments of Neanderthal stone blades. Link that to the fact that the bone fragments showed signs of cut marks, and the conclusion is reached that they were the victims of cannabalism.
     The DNA findings are more interesting. In total, 12 individuals were identified. Following detailed testing it was found that 7 of the 12 had mitochrondial lineage & all 12 shared the same HVR1 and HVR2 stretches of DNA. The conclusion being that they were a closely related family group. Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox, of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, the leader of the research, explains what this means. "If you go to the street and sample 12 individuals at random, there's no way you're going to find 7 out of 12 with the same mitochrondial lineage. But if you go to the birthday party for a grandmother, chances are you'll find brothers and sisters and first cousins. You'd easily find 7 with the same mitochrondial lineage".
     These conclusions have already been challenged. One noteworthy sceptic is Linda Vigilant, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Her work with wild chimpanzees has shown that some primates with identical HVR1 and HVR2 stretches are not closely related. She did, however, think it was "a nice start".

Edited from Science, The New York Times (20 December 2010), BBC News (21 December 2010)

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