By: Katelynn Fleming
Any biology major or Stargate fan knows that a species must maintain genetic diversity in order to survive, and it turns out that our ancestors may have known that 34,000 years ago. In fact, new research shows that they may have created inter-tribal mating networks to guard against inbreeding and the slew of unpleasant consequences that it invites.
An article from Science Daily reports that the study was carried out by an international team led by the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. They performed genetic sequencing on remains found in Sungir, Russia which dates back to the Upper Palaeolithic period, a time when modern humans from Africa were first colonizing western Eurasia. The results of the sequencing showed that none of the humans buried there were more than second cousins, so there must have been some way that new blood was brought into families. Given the complexity and symbolism of the jewelry interred with the remains, scientists think that formal ceremonies and structures may have accompanied mate exchanges between tribal groups. According to Science Daily, the conclusion to these findings is that early modern humans “deliberately sought partners beyond their immediate family, and that they were probably connected to a wider network of groups from within which mates were chosen, in order to avoid becoming inbred.” The study’s authors also hypothesized that this practice might be the reason that the human species survived over similar ones such as Neanderthals, although more genetic research on Neanderthals will certainly be necessary to prove this hypothesis.
There is a big “if” involved in this conclusion, however. The conclusions drawn from this research were based on evidence from only one dig site, which is far from enough to show that this type of mating was typical for early humans. There will need to be vastly more research done on the subject in order to convince experts that these conclusions apply to the entire species.
Early human mate exchange networks were no eHarmony, but it seems our ancestors were smarter about dating than previously thought. Their search for lifelong mates outside the family circle may have both ensured their survival and made possible our existence.