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Ancient DNA reveals the social lives of the oldest known family group

<i>NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore University of Leicester</i><br/>
NASA/Swift/A. Beardmore University of Leicester

By Katie Hunt, CNN

Neanderthal is an insult still lobbed about to suggest someone is dim-witted and out of touch.

The more we learn about our Stone Age cousins, however, the more it appears the opposite is true. Neanderthals weren’t brutish cave dwellers they made sophisticated tools, yarn and art, and they buried their dead with care.

A new discovery in a Siberian cave this week reveals an intimate portrait of Neanderthal family life and shows it may be time for Homo sapiens to ditch that superiority complex once and for all.

We are family

Scientists have uncovered the oldest known family group, using ancient DNA from Neanderthals who lived in Chagyrskaya Cave in southern Siberia in Russia.

The riverside hunting camp about 54,000 years ago was home to a tight community of about 20 Neanderthals, including a father and his teenage daughter, a young male who might have been a nephew or a cousin, and an adult female who was a second-degree relative — perhaps an aunt or a grandmother.

The researchers also detected an unexpected pattern of female migration among the different threads of genetic ancestry.

The most likely explanation for this was that most of the female Neanderthals in the small Chagyrskaya group had come from another community — perhaps to join their mate’s family.

A long time ago

If you lived in London during the Black Death, the odds of beating the bubonic plague weren’t good — it killed 50% of Europe’s population over the course of seven years.

The lucky survivors of the Black Death that ravaged Europe had — in part — their genes to thank, new research has found. Using DNA extracted from teeth, scientists were able to identify a key genetic difference that influenced who survived and who died from the disease.

That genetic legacy still affects the human immune system today, according to the researchers, but in a less desirable way when it comes to certain autoimmune diseases.


Shipwrecks exert a unique pull on our collective imagination — the lure of sunken treasure and wartime battles won and lost. But while long-lost vessels on the ocean floor can function as artificial reefs and have tremendous storytelling value, they can also pose a risk to the marine ecosystem.

A World War II ship is still leaking explosives and other toxic elements onto the floor of the North Sea more than 80 years after it sank, according to a new study that analyzed samples collected from the ship’s steel hull as well as the surrounding sediment.

The samples revealed heavy metals such as nickel and copper, in addition to arsenic and explosive compounds.

Researchers involved with the study estimated that shipwrecks from both world wars — found across Earth’s oceans — contain between 2.5 million and 20.4 million metric tons of petroleum products.

Across the universe

One of the most powerful explosions in the universe was detected on October 9.

The gamma-ray burst — witnessed as a long, bright pulse of light — was the birth cry of a black hole.

It occurred when a massive star, in the Sagitta constellation about 2.4 billion light-years away, collapsed into a supernova, forming the new black hole.

Billions of years after traveling across space, the black hole’s colossal detonation burst has finally reached our corner of the universe, and scientists said it presents a rare opportunity to explore long-standing questions about this type of explosion.

Meanwhile, the James Webb Space Telescope has captured a spectacular image of the eerie columns of cosmic dust and gas that mark the beginning of a stellar life cycle.

Ocean secrets

The carcass of a giant sunfish was discovered floating in the seas surrounding the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores in December. Weighing in at 2,744 kilograms (3 tons), it is believed to be the world’s heaviest bony fish.

A new study revealed the animal had a bruise that may offer clues about its death. Researchers found traces of red paint — used to coat the keels of boats — embedded within the wound. However, whether the impact happened before or after the creature’s death is unknown.

The discovery was a “sign that the oceans are still healthy enough to sustain the heaviest species existing,” said José Nuno Gomes-Pereira, a postdoctoral researcher from the Atlantic Naturalist Association, “but a warning for more conservation in terms of pollution and boat traffic near oceanic islands.”


Kick back with these remarkable reads:

— Elephants’ incredible memory is helping them survive in the harsh environment of the Namibian desert.

— It’s a myth spread by dog owners that cats are cold and aloof. Here’s how to be certain that your cat loves you.

— Ketchup makes me gag, but the rest of my family loves it. Check out the science behind why some foods are so polarizing.

— Speaking of food choices, experts weighed in on how eating seasonally and locally could help the planet, and the answer is complicated. For more ways to minimize your role in the climate crisis — and reduce your eco-anxiety — sign up for CNN’s Life, But Greener limited newsletter series.

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Like what you’ve read? Oh, but there’s more. Sign up here to receive in your inbox the next edition of Wonder Theory, brought to you by CNN Space and Science writers Ashley Strickland and Katie Hunt. They find wonder in planets beyond our solar system and discoveries from the ancient world.

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