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Keywords:

  • Neanderthals;
  • Denisovans;
  • introgression;
  • ancient DNA

Abstract

For much of the 20th century, the predominant view of human evolutionary history was derived from the fossil record. Homo erectus was seen arising in Africa from an earlier member of the genus and then spreading throughout the Old World and into the Oceania. A regional continuity model of anagenetic change from H. erectus via various intermediate archaic species into the modern humans in each of the regions inhabited by H. erectus was labeled the multiregional model of human evolution (MRE). A contrasting model positing a single origin, in Africa, of anatomically modern H. sapiens with some populations later migrating out of Africa and replacing the local archaic populations throughout the world with complete replacement became known as the recent African origin (RAO) model. Proponents of both models used different interpretations of the fossil record to bolster their views for decades. In the 1980s, molecular genetic techniques began providing evidence from modern human variation that allowed not only the different models of modern human origins to be tested but also the exploration demographic history and the types of selection that different regions of the genome and even specific traits had undergone. The majority of researchers interpreted these data as strongly supporting the RAO model, especially analyses of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Extrapolating backward from modern patterns of variation and using various calibration points and substitution rates, a consensus arose that saw modern humans evolving from an African population around 200,000 years ago. Much later, around 50,000 years ago, a subset of this population migrated out of Africa replacing Neanderthals in Europe and western Asia as well as archaics in eastern Asia and Oceania. mtDNA sequences from more than two-dozen Neanderthals and early modern humans re-enforced this consensus. In 2010, however, the complete draft genomes of Neanderthals and of heretofore unknown hominins from Siberia, called Denisovans, demonstrated gene flow between these archaic human species and modern Eurasians but not sub-Saharan Africans. Although the levels of gene flow may be very limited, this unexpected finding does not fit well with either the RAO model or MRE model. More thorough sampling of modern human diversity, additional fossil discoveries, and the sequencing of additional hominin fossils are necessary to throw light onto our origins and our history. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.