Early Humans Formed Sophisticated Mating Systems To Avoid Inbreeding

Detail of one of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia. University of Copenhagen

There is new evidence to suggest our early ancestors developed surprisingly sophisticated social networks to prevent inbreeding over 34,000 years ago.

A team of international researchers made the discovery after genome sequencing the fossils of four hunter-gatherers from the Upper Palaeolithic period and comparing them to the DNA of modern-day and ancient humans. Their results have been published in the journal Science.

The remains were found at a site in Sanghir, Russia, home to some of the earliest signs of Homo sapien activity in Eurasia. All four bodies were male – one an adult, two children, and the fourth, the incomplete remains of a second adult. Conventional wisdom would suggest the bodies were closely related. However, to the researchers' surprise, they found this was not the case.

The individuals were genetically no closer than second cousins, and the femur of an adult discovered in the children's grave would have belonged to someone no closer than a great-grandfather. 

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llustrations of the Sunghir burials. Libor Balák, Anthropark.

"I think many researchers had assumed that the people of Sunghir were very closely related, especially the two youngsters from the same grave," said senior author Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow at St John's College, Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, in a statement

The fact that they were not, suggests that even people in the Upper Palaeolithic period understood the need to avoid inbreeding.

"This means that they must have developed a system for this purpose. If small hunter-gatherer bands were mixing at random, we would see much greater evidence of inbreeding than we have here," Willerslev added.

Current research suggests that like other hominins, including our cousins the Neanderthals, prehistoric humans lived in small family units. This type of living arrangement would make inbreeding likely due to convenience and a lack of alternatives.

Yet, at some as yet unknown point in human history, H sapiens stopped seeking the company of close relatives and looked further afield. The study authors theorize that this could be one reason why H. sapiens have been evolutionarily more successful than other hominin species, though acknowledge that more research needs to be done to support this hypothesis.

The new findings imply Upper Paleolithic groups used social networks incorporating several smaller units to sustain their lifestyle and avoid inbreeding, similar to modern-day hunter-gatherer societies. 

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