Paleogenomics suggest inbreeding avoidance in early humans

Were our prehistoric ancestors aware of the dangers caused by procreation among close relatives? A study led by an international team of scientists, including SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics Group Leader Laurent Excoffier and his team at the University of Bern, suggests that early humans might have purposely avoided mating with closely related partners. And this as early as 34,000 years ago.

To reach their conclusions, the scientists sequenced the genomes of four individuals from Sunghir, an Upper Paleolithic site in Russia. While these people lived at the same time and were buried together, the analyses reveal that they were not closely related in genetic terms.

The result, published yesterday in Science, comes as a surprise, as people at that time lived in very small groups. To avoid inbreeding, as seems to be the case, they must therefore have developed complex cultural systems, such as wide social networks.

Should inbreeding avoidance be confirmed on a larger scale, and found to be specific to Homo sapiens, it could even shed some light on the evolutionary success of modern humans in comparison with other species of hominins roaming the Earth at that time, such as Neanderthals.

Read the full media release from the University of Cambridge.

Reference: Sikora M et al. Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behaviour of early Upper Paleolithic foragers, Science, 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aao1807


Sunghir tumba paleolitica

Detail of one of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia.
Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez via Wikimedia Commons