Multiple dispersals and modern human origins


  • Marta Mirazon Lahr,

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    • Marta Mirazon Lahr is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her research focuses on modern human origins and subsequent differentiation.

  • Robert Foley

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    • Robert Foley is Director of the Duckworth Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King's College. He has carried out research into the evolutionary biology of fossil hominids, and he is the author of Another Unique Species as well as editor of several books.


Despite a massive endeavour, the problem of modern human origins not only remains unresolved, but is usually reduced to “Out of Africa” versus multiregional evolution. Not all would agree, but evidence for a single recent origin is accumulating. Here, we want to go beyond this debate and explore within the “Out of Africa” framework an issue that has not been fully addressed: the mechanism by which modern human diversity has developed. We believe there is no clear rubicon of modern Homo sapiens, and that multiple dispersals occurred from a morphologically variable population in Africa. Pre-existing African diversity is thus crucial to the way human diversity developed outside Africa. The pattern of diversity—behavioural, linguistic, morphological and genetic—can be interpreted as the result of dispersals, colonisation, differentiation and subsequent dispersals overlaid on former population ranges. The first dispersals would have originated in Africa from where two different geographical routes were possible, one through Ethiopia/Arabia towards South Asia, and one through North Africa/Middle East towards Eurasia.