for National Geographic News
A new piece of evidenceone sure to prove controversialhas been flung into the human origins debate.
A study published March 7 in Nature presents genetic evidence that humans left Africa in at least three waves of migration. It suggests that modern humans (Homo sapiens) interbred with archaic humans (Homo erectus and Neandertals) who had migrated earlier from Africa, rather than displacing them.
In the human origins debate, which has been highly charged for at least 15 years, there is a consensus among scientists that Homo erectus, the precursor to modern humans, originated in Africa and expanded to Eurasia beginning around 1.7 million years ago.
Beyond that, opinions diverge.
There are two main points in contention. The first is whether modern humans evolved solely in Africa and then spread outward, or evolved concurrently in several places around the world.
The second area of controversy is whether modern humans completely replaced archaic forms of humans, or whether the process was one of assimilation, with interbreeding between the two groups.
"There are regions of the world, like the Middle East and Portugal, where some fossils look as if they could have been some kind of mix between archaic and modern people," said Rebecca Cann, a geneticist at the University of Hawaii.
"The question is," she said, "if there was mixing, did some archaic genetic lineages enter the modern human gene pool? If there was mixing and yet we have no evidence of those genesas is indicated from the mitochondrial DNA and y chromosome datawhy not?"
Alan Templeton, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis who headed the study reported in Nature, has concluded that yes, there was interbreeding between the different groups. "We are all genetically intertwined into a single long-term evolutionary lineage," he said.
To reach his conclusion, Templeton performed a statistical analysis of 11 different haplotype trees. A haplotype is a block of DNA containing gene variations that researchers believe are passed as a unit to successive generations. By comparing genetic differences in haplotypes of populations, researchers hope to track human evolution.
Templeton also concluded that modern humans left Africa in several wavesthe first about 1.7 million years ago, another between 800,000 and 400,000 years ago, and a third between 150,000 and 80,000 years ago.
Alison S. Brooks, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University, is more cautious about Templeton's conclusions. "Archaeological evidence supports multiple dispersals out of Africa," she said. "The question has always been whether these waves are dead ends. Did all of these people die? Templeton says not really, that every wave bred at least a little bit with those in Eurasia.
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