Scientists use genetics, climate reconstructions to track global spread of modern humans out of Africa

Sep 17, 2012
Diagram showing spread of humans from Africa. Credit: Andrea Manica.

(Phys.org)—Research indicates the out-of-Africa spread of humans was dictated by the appearance of favourable climatic windows.

By integrating genetics with high resolution historical climate reconstructions, scientists have been able to predict the timing and routes taken by during their expansion out of Africa.  Their research reveals that the spread of humans out of Africa was dictated by climate, with their entry into Europe possibly delayed by competition with Neanderthals.  The research is published today, 17 September, in the journal PNAS.

Dr Anders Eriksson, from the University of Cambridge, the lead author of the paper said: "By combining extensive with climate and vegetation models, we were able to build the most detailed reconstruction of so far."

The role of climate change in determining the timing of the expansion of has been long debated. The oldest fossil remains of anatomically modern humans are found in Africa and date back to around 200 thousand years ago, but there is no trace outside Africa until 100 thousand years later.

The newly published model provides the first direct link between and the timing of the expansion out of Africa, as well as the routes taken.

To investigate the role of climate, the Cambridge scientists built a highly detailed model tracking the fate of all individuals on the planet. The project involved specialists from a variety of fields. Working together with and vegetation modellers, they reconstructed climate and sea level changes and their effect on through time, with a resolution of 100km. After exploring several million demographic scenarios (e.g. , local movement rates, link between food availability and population sizes), they were able to identify the scenarios that were most compatible with the geographic patterns of in modern humans. Working with anthropologists and archaeologists, they were then able to compare these scenarios against the dates and localities of known archaeological and fossil finds.

The demographic scenarios chosen by the model revealed a link between food availability and population density in the past was very similar to the link found in present day hunter-gatherers.  Based on this link, the model found that climate prevented humans from exiting Africa until a favourable window appeared in North-East Africa approximately 70-55k years ago. Most movement occurred through the so-called Sothern Route, exiting Africa via the Bab-el-Mandeb strait into the Arabian Peninsula.

The dating of the out-of-Africa exit as well as the arrival times for other continents  identified by the model, were also found to  largely agree with archaeological and fossil evidence, with the notable exception of Europe. For Europe, the model based on climate predicted arrival times approximately 10 thousand  years earlier than the available archaeological evidence. This discrepancy could be explained by competition with , which was not accounted for in their model, and would likely have slowed down the colonization of Europe by modern humans.

Dr Manica, who co-led the study, said:  "The idea that we can reconstruct climate, and estimate food availability and finally figure out the demographic changes and movements of our ancestors all over the world is simply amazing. The fact that most of our results are in agreement with archaeological and anthropological evidence – which was not used to generate our model – points to the fact that our reconstructions based on genetics are quite realistic."

Explore further: Scientists reproduce evolutionary changes by manipulating embryonic development of mice

More information: "Late Pleistocene climate change and the global expansion of anatomically modern humans," by Anders Eriksson et al. PNAS, 2012.

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User comments : 7

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komone
3 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2012
I remember Chris Stringer predicting such a dispersion and rough timings well before the genetic evidence, purely from anatomical evidence. Awesome.
rod_russell_9
1.4 / 5 (11) Sep 17, 2012
Wildly imaginative. Another example of goal-directed research based solely upon theories. And it's all the fault of man-made global warming! Did these guys get public funding for this frivolity?
ekim
3.4 / 5 (5) Sep 18, 2012
Wildly imaginative. Another example of goal-directed research based solely upon theories. And it's all the fault of man-made global warming! Did these guys get public funding for this frivolity?

Are the denialists using bots now? Was the term "climate change" used enough times in this article to justify a response? Clearly any real human reading this article would realize the difference.
obama_socks
1.6 / 5 (7) Sep 18, 2012
It's still not solid evidence...still only theory no matter how many computer models are programmed with so much available data. A lot of good evidence was probably destroyed in earthquakes and other natural catastrophes. They would need hundreds of thousands of geologists and archaeologists to examine every square inch of the land masses to find enough evidence that would prove their hypotheses once and for all. And even then.....!!
Any settlements, artifacts and human remains lying close to a subduction zone would most likely have been carried under and are long gone. As far as "climate change", the climate has ALWAYS changed in varying degrees back and forth, with or without human intervention. Earth is a dynamic globe, and our species have had to adapt to it, not it to us. We've learned to survive the Earth, no matter where we came from originally and where we've gone. Human ingenuity enabled us to survive her and her wild capriciousness.
Egleton
1 / 5 (3) Sep 18, 2012
I am an I2a(P37.2) What are you?
"Human ingenuity enabled us to survive her and her wild capriciousness."

Not good enough. Have you seen the exponential curves? Civilisation turns energy into people and we found the mother load, Oil.
Now we will have to do what we have always done once we have exhausted the resources of the environment. We will have to move on.
Say bye bye to the planet. We've got to go.
But then again, what is blindingly obvious to an I2a(P37.2)takes others longer to absorb.
kochevnik
not rated yet Sep 18, 2012
Personally Africa amazes me. I find it difficult to accept there could be millennia separating me from people there genetically, yet I still have more genetic commonality with them than my many of my neighbors. Until I meet some, that is. So much untapped human potential in Africa.
Egleton
not rated yet Sep 18, 2012
There is more genetic diversity in potatoes in South America because potatoes originate there.
There is more human genetic diversity in Africa for the same reason.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that small differences in the gene code can not have major implications.