Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Neanderthals, and guess who's coming to dinner

In a cave in Northern Spain, researchers have discovered clues to the identity of the victims of a mass murder committed 49,000 years ago. The butchered bones of 12 men, women, and children protruding from the floor may be the remains of an extended Neandertal family that were killed and eaten by their fellow Neandertals. Now, DNA analysis of the bones is providing rare clues into the family structure of these close cousins of modern humans.

Researchers have long wondered why Neandertals went extinct. Some think they lacked the genetic diversity to survive deadly viruses or other challenges. Others have proposed that their social groups were smaller and less sophisticated than those of modern humans; if so, their networks for trading food, tools, or information critical for survival would not have been as reliable. It's been hard to test such hypotheses with fossils, but new methods to study ancient DNA are starting to produce clues.

The latest insight comes from a "tunnel of bones" in a cave in El SidrĂ³n, Spain. Here, a team of Spanish researchers has extracted and analyzed mitochondrial DNA and fragments of Y chromosomes from the remarkably well-preserved bones of 12 Neandertals.

Read more here.

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