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Discoveries Breathe New Life into Human Origins Debate

For the past 15 years, a debate has been raging between scientists studying the origins of man, an argument that reaches to the very core of what it is to be human. Two recent anthropological studies support the theory that modern humans emerged from both African and regional sources—but the debate is far from over.


Nariokotome Boy, or “Turkana Boy,” a Homo erectus found by Alan Walker and Richard Leakey, Lake Turkana, Kenya is the most complete Homo erectus ever found.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Where did humans come from? With the help of modern science, this deceptively simple question has brought about myriad debates regarding the origin of modern humanity. The two strongest origin theories seem incompatible, yet each continues to return evidence backing their own theory.

“There’s always alternative explanations [to new evidence],” said John Relethford, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Oneonta. “It gets really confusing and complicated.”

On one side: scientists who claim modern humans arose from a single “cradle of civilization” in Africa. On the other: those who say modern humans evolved everywhere, as populations mixed and advantageous genes spread.

The most recent discoveries fall on the side of those who argue the latter. The two studies, published separately by Australian and U.S. scientists, examine two types of evidence: DNA and anatomical. Both studies, say the scientists, show that modern humans could not have evolved from a single African source.


Neither side disputes that hominids once emerged from Africa, colonizing Eurasia.

One circle of scientists maintains that human precursors remaining in Africa evolved into a second “Out of Africa” group of physically and intellectually modern humans—Homo sapiens—who recolonized Eurasia, replacing so-called archaic humans.

The theory maintains that Neandertals and other geographically distinct hominids—descendents of the first African exodus—became extinct with the arrival of modern humans 100,000 years ago.

One version of the Out of Africa theory holds that modern humans can be traced back to a single African ancestor, dubbed “Eve.”

Opposition to this theory comes from multiregionalists, anthropologists who see modern man arising from “a process of change within a species,” said one of the theory’s architects, Milford Wolpoff.

Multiregionalists see modern humans arising from these changes in Africa, Eurasia, and Australia. The species that evolved, they say, gained traits held by all modern humans but remained racially diverse because of geographical adaptations and the distances between populations.

The modern traits were shared species-wide through interbreeding, maintains Wolpoff.

“The [Homo sapiens’] genes spread widely and were successful,” he explained.

Wolpoff also argues for a much earlier date for the evolution of Homo sapiens than Out of Africa theorists postulate.

“There’s only been one species for a long time,” he said.


The findings of two of multiregionalism’s architects, Wolpoff and Australian National University’s Alan Thorne, lend credence to their theory.

Wolpoff’s team of scientists compared the anatomical structure of bones found in Australia and central Europe, looking for signs of a uniquely African ancestry. They found none. Their report, published in Science, reveals that Wolpoff found evidence of both African and “local” ancestors.

“We could not disprove the hypothesis of multiple ancestry,” he said. “We don’t think [the replacement theory] could be correct. ”

Meanwhile Thorne and other Australian researchers were studying the DNA of Australian skeletons, including Mungo Man, a modern human skeleton that has been dated as far back as 60,000 years.

What the Australian team found, said Wolpoff, was that “the oldest of the Australian skeletons does not have African mitochondrial DNA.”

Their research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that, “‘anatomically modern’ humans were present in Australia before the complete fixation of mtDNA now found in all living people.”

Despite this new evidence, the debate about the origins of modern humans is likely to continue, said Relethford. “I don’t think any one single study is going to do it.”

“A lot of people argue for an intermediate ground,” he added, “[that] the change to modern humans did take place first in Africa and then spread out,” but did not completely replace archaic human populations.

Wolpoff, however, contends that once a new generation of scientists examines the issue, they will back multiregionalism.

“We’re writing this for them,” he said.

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Out of Africa and Into the Bookstore

Most of the complex biological arguments supporting the dueling human origin theories can be found in scientific articles with titles like “Molecular analysis of Neanderthal DNA from the northern Caucasus.”

The rudiments of the theories, however, as well as their societal implications, have made their way into the literary mainstream.

In the multiregionalists’ corner is Race and Human Evolution, by Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari. The multi-faceted book explores not only the roots of the Wolpoff’s theory, but also the authors’ belief that unwarranted charges of racism have hindered its success.

“Eve was glamorous and sexy,” they conclude. “Eve was a simple theory that made science reporting easy and fun…Eve implied the brotherhood of all humankind and was politically correct.”

Supporting the Out of Africa theory are a number of books, including African Exodus, by Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie. The authors put forth evidence supporting a second, recent African exodus and explain why they believe this species successfully dominated the world.

“Indeed,” they write, “when we stand back and ask basic questions about our form…we can see a creature that, for all its twentieth-century grooming, has hardly changed from the hominid who made its African Exodus only 100,000 years ago.”