Genetics and modern human origins


  • John H. Relethford

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    • John Relethford is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. He completed his Ph.D. in anthropology (1980) at SUNY-Albany. His primary research interests are anthropological genetics and human variation, particularly the use of quantitative traits for assessing population history. Much of his research has focused on the population history of Ireland. His recent research has been on the application of population genetics to questions of modern human origins.


The past decade has brought considerable debate on the subject of modern human origins. The nature of the transition from Homo erectus to archaic Homo sapiens to modern H. sapiens has been examined primarily in terms of the relative contribution of archaic populations to later moderns, both within and among geographic regions. The recent African origin model proposes that modern humans appeared first in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, and then spread through the rest of the Old World, replacing preexisting populations.1–6 This model has been referred to by a variety of names, including “replacement”, “Garden of Eden”, “Noah's Ark”, and “out of Africa”. The recent African origin model contrasts with the multiregional model, which proposes a species-wide transition to modern humans throughout the Old World during the past million years or more.7–10 Indeed, some proponents of the multiregional model advocate placing Homo erectus and all subsequent species of Homo in the evolutionary species Homo sapiens.11 This contrasts with the view that there were multiple hominid species during the Middle Pleistocene. The debate continues.12,13 Although the multiregional model is often portrayed as proposing a simultaneous transition to anatomically modern humans in different geographic regions, it explicitly allows for varying degrees of continuity across time and space.10 This model, in the broad sense, does not rule out the possibility that modern human morphology appeared first in Africa and then spread through the rest of the Old World through gene flow. However, not all advocates of the multiregional model adhere to this specific subset of the general model.9

Comparison of the African and multiregional models is complicated by considering other, less extreme, hypotheses. Some versions of the recent African origin model imply a speciation event associated with the initial origin of modern humans. Another version, which suggests the possibility of some admixture between “moderns” leaving Africa and preexisting “archaics” elsewhere in the Old World,14,15 is similar to some variants of the multiregional model, which also suggest that modern morphology appeared first in Africa, but involved admixture with other Old World populations.16 The major difference between these views appears to be the extent of admixture, although the exact level is never specified. A further complication is the possibility that multiple dispersals from Africa produced a more complicated pattern of worldwide variation.17