DG head of center Eske Willerslev is senior author at study that shows how prehistoric humans avoided inbreeding

05. October 2017

Prehistoric humans are likely to have formed mating networks at a surprisingly early stage in order to avoid inbreeding. This is concluded from research conducted by an international team of academics, led by the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of four individuals from Sunghir, a famous Upper Palaeolithic site in Russia, which is believed to have been inhabited about 34,000 years ago. The study examined genetic information from the remains of anatomically modern humans who lived during the Upper Palaeolithic, a period when modern humans from Africa first colonised western Eurasia. The results suggest that people 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.

Professor Eske Willerslev, DNRF head of center for geogenetics and senior author on the study, states: “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. 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.”

Read more about the study at the University of Copenhagen website here.