Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers

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Science  03 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6363, pp. 659-662
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao1807

How early human groups were organized

Sequencing ancient hominid remains has provided insights into the relatedness between individuals. However, it is not clear whether ancient humans bred among close relatives, as is common in some modern human cultures. Sikora et al. report genome sequences from four early humans buried close together in western Russia about 34,000 years ago (see the Perspective by Bergström and Tyler-Smith). The individuals clustered together genetically and came from a population with a small effective size, but they were not very closely related. Thus, these people may represent a single social group that was part of a larger mating network, similar to contemporary hunter-gatherers. The lack of close inbreeding might help to explain the survival advantage of anatomically modern humans.

Science, this issue p. 659; see also p. 586


Present-day hunter-gatherers (HGs) live in multilevel social groups essential to sustain a population structure characterized by limited levels of within-band relatedness and inbreeding. When these wider social networks evolved among HGs is unknown. To investigate whether the contemporary HG strategy was already present in the Upper Paleolithic, we used complete genome sequences from Sunghir, a site dated to ~34,000 years before the present, containing multiple anatomically modern human individuals. We show that individuals at Sunghir derive from a population of small effective size, with limited kinship and levels of inbreeding similar to HG populations. Our findings suggest that Upper Paleolithic social organization was similar to that of living HGs, with limited relatedness within residential groups embedded in a larger mating network.

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