• stars: formation;
  • stars: Population II;
  • supernovae: general;
  • galaxies: evolution;
  • galaxies: stellar content;
  • cosmology: theory


We study the stellar population history and chemical evolution of the Milky Way (MW) in a hierarchical Λ cold dark matter model for structure formation. Using a Monte Carlo method based on the semi-analytical extended Press & Schechter formalism, we develop a new code GAlaxy MErger Treeand Evolution (gamete) to reconstruct the merger tree of the Galaxy and follow the evolution of gas and stars along the hierarchical tree. Our approach allows us to compare the observational properties of the MW with model results, exploring different properties of primordial stars, such as their initial mass function and the critical metallicity for low-mass star formation, Zcr. In particular, by matching our predictions to the metallicity distribution function (MDF) of metal-poor stars in the Galactic halo we find that: (i) a strong supernova (SN) feedback is required to reproduce the observed properties of the MW; (ii) stars with [Fe/H] < −2.5 form in haloes accreting Galactic medium (GM) enriched by earlier SN explosions; (iii) the fiducial model (Zcr= 10−4 Z, mPopIII= 200 M) provides an overall good fit to the MDF, but cannot account for the two hyper-metal-poor (HMP) stars with [Fe/H] < −5; the latter can be accommodated if Zcr≤ 10−6 Z but such model overpopulates the ‘metallicity desert’, that is, the range −5.3 < [Fe/H] < −4 in which no stars have been detected; (iv) the current non-detection of metal-free stars robustly constrains either Zcr > 0 or the masses of the first stars mPopIII > 0.9 M; (v) the statistical impact of truly second-generation stars, that is, stars forming out of gas polluted only by metal-free stars, is negligible in current samples; and (vi) independent of Zcr, 60 per cent of metals in the GM are ejected through winds by haloes with masses M < 6 × 109 M, thus showing that low-mass haloes are the dominant population contributing to cosmic metal enrichment. We discuss the limitations of our study and comparison with previous work.