Humans Migrated Out of Africa, Then Some Went Back, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 14, 2006
Humans first moved out of Africa about 70,000 years ago, but 30,000
years later some of them moved back.

That's according to a new study based on DNA evidence from ancient human remains found in Africa.

The study shows that a small group of early humans returned to Africa after migrating to the Middle East.

In addition, the research suggests that the humans' return occurred around the same time that another group of humans left the Middle East and moved into Europe.

"We were rather surprised by the age of the migration back to Africa," said Antonio Torroni, a geneticist at the University of Pavia in Italy.

"We did not really expect that it was 40,000 to 45,000 years old."

"But the age and the fact that the migration had originated in the Levant [a geographical term referring to a large part of the Middle East] led us to link the migration to Africa to that occurring at the same time toward Europe from the same region," added Torroni, who led the research team.

The findings are reported in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Single Dispersal

The new study builds on the theory, laid out in two separate studies published in Science last year, that humans migrated from Africa in a single dispersal about 70,000 years ago.

(Read Early Humans May Have Crossed Sea to Leave Africa" [May 13, 2005].)

That theory suggests that modern humans left East Africa by crossing the Red Sea, then journeyed south, following a coastal route along the Arabian Peninsula and on to India, Malaysia, and Australia (see a map of human migration).

Other models have suggested that humans left Africa in multiple waves of migration via northern and southern routes.

The single "out of Africa" dispersal is believed to have given rise to all modern non-African populations.

However, scientists have been puzzled by two genetic populations found only in northern and eastern Africa, whose ancestors appear to have been Asian.

(Get the basics on human population genetics.)

In the new study, scientists sequenced the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, from 81 individuals in both of these genetic groups.

They found that the two populations must have arisen in southwestern Asia and returned to Africa about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago.

The groups did not, however, follow the same southern coastal route back that was used in the single dispersal out of Africa.

Instead, the study suggests, they arrived from the Middle East, the same area from which another genetic group—one typical among Europeans—was at the same time moving toward Europe.

"It's a finding that … supports the view that the first [Late Stone Age] cultures in North Africa and Europe had a common homeland in the Levant," Torroni said.

Vincent Macaulay, the lead author on one of the two single-dispersion studies published in Science last year, agrees with the findings.

"These results make perfect sense and wrap up some loose ends," said Macaulay, a genetic statistician at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Changing Climate

The authors of the new study believe that before reaching the Levant, migrating humans may have paused at the Persian Gulf for some time because of a hostile climate.

Environmental evidence suggests that migrating north from southwestern Asia would have been impossible earlier than 50,000 years ago because of a vast desert that extended from northern Africa to central Asia.

"When weather conditions improved, the desert was fragmented and reduced in size," said Anna Olivieri, a geneticist in Torroni's lab and a co-author of the study.

"The human groups living in the coastal regions of southwestern Asia were able to move inland."

"Some of them colonized first the Levant and from there all surrounding regions including Europe and North Africa," she said.

"Consider also that the Sahara desert in North Africa was reducing its size. Thus, that region became interesting from a human colonization perspective."

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