Even our human ancestors from over 30,000 years ago may have seen the dangers of inbreeding and devised complex social structures to avoid them. Could this explain the survival of some hominin species while the others died out?
Early Human Awareness
The mystery of the origins of humanity is a topic that continues to amaze and baffle us even as the human race continues to press forward into the future. Though we have clues as to how the human race came to become what it is today, there are still many gaps that need to be filled in order for us to complete the human story.
An international team of experts studied the genomes of multiple anatomically modern human remains found in Sunghir, Russia and found rather impressive modern acts from these prehistoric humans. What experts found in their research published in the journal Science was that our ancestors may have taken steps to sustain the human race as early as 34,000 years ago.
Their results suggest that the early humans who lived during the Upper Paleolithic period deliberately sought out partners from other social groups they were connected to in order to avoid inbreeding. What's more, grave goods in the burial sites also suggest that they have already developed rules, rituals, and ceremonies similar to the ones still practiced by modern hunter-gatherer groups of today.
Remains At Sunghir
The Sunghir site contains the remains of one adult male, symbolically incomplete remains of another adult, and two other remains of younger individuals, all of whom likely lived at the site at the same time. Upon studying the genetic information provided by the remains, the experts found that these individuals are not closely related and are in fact second cousins at most. Further, a femur found at the site likely belonged to an individual no closer than a great-great-grandfather of the boys.
"What this means is that even people in the Upper Palaeolithic, who were living in tiny groups, understood the importance of avoiding inbreeding. The data that we have suggest that it was being purposely avoided," says Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen and St. John's College, Cambridge, senior author of the study.
By comparison, Neanderthal remains from 50,000 years ago suggest a non-avoidance of inbreeding, though even researchers exercise caution with this comparison as it is possible that they were isolated and did not have other partner options.
Who We Are Today
The current study suggests that perhaps this act of early humans of avoiding inbreeding could be the reason for the survival of hominids that turned out to be modern humans, whereas other hominin species such as Neanderthals eventually died out.
"When you put the evidence together, it seems to be speaking to us about the really big questions; what made these people who they were as a species, and who we are as a result," said Willerslev.