We live in times when our understanding of the origin and diversification of modern humans is undergoing great change. More concretely, our understanding of what it means to be human is transforming. The terms are overused, but perhaps it could be called a “revolution” or “paradigm shift” between the year 2000 and today.
At the end of 2010 ancient DNA made it highly likely that people outside of Sub-Saharan Africa had non-trivial Neanderthal ancestry. That is, enough ancestry that it is detectable genomically. I should also add that I think it is highly probable that the good majority of people within Sub-Saharan Africa have Neanderthal ancestry. Some of this is due to recent attenuated Eurasian back-migration (e.g., many West Africans, Nilotic people, and KhoeSan have Holocene gene-flow signals which derive from the agricultural expansions of the past 10,000 years). But, I think once deep Pleistocene genomes of African humans are sequenced we will see evidence of some Eurasian back-migration at a very ancient date (there is already some suggestive inferential evidence of this).*
Talking with a few friends this week, I realized that the famous “We are all Africans” t-shirts, which have turned into recognizable memes, should be supplemented with “We are all Neanderthals” t-shirts. So yeah, now selling them on DNA Geeks. If the Richard Dawkins Foundation can make quid on it, why not the Razib Khan et al. Foundation?
This has all been on my mind due to a review paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Did Our Species Evolve in Subdivided Populations across Africa, and Why Does It Matter? (OA). If you read this blog closely you’ll see there’s not much new in it. But, it is a signpost, a marker, of the times we live in. Here’s the important bit:
Together with recent archaeological and genetic lines of evidence, these data are consistent with the view that our species originated and diversified within strongly subdivided (i.e., structured) populations, probably living across Africa, that were connected by sporadic gene flow…This concept of ‘African multiregionalism’…may also include hybridization between H. sapiens and more divergent hominins (see Glossary) living in different regions…Crucially, such population subdivisions may have been shaped and sustained by shifts in ecological boundaries…challenging the view that our species was endemic to a single region or habitat, and implying an often underacknowledged complexity to our African origins.
The first person who explicitly used the term “African multi-regionalism” that I recall was Alwyn Scally, though the general framework was shaping up years before. Frankly, I was waiting for someone to use that word. If Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture, published in 2002, was the apogee of the old model, often inchoate and more crisp in popularization than within the scientific community that we are all descended from a single East African tribe, this review paper heralds the emergence of a more complex and pluralistic framework. The emergence of modern humans within Africa then may have been a polycentric gradual and interactive process; not a singular explosion against the firmament of the antique savanna landscape.
By the late 2000s, even before the 2010 Neanderthal draft genome paper, it was starting to be evident due to genome-wide analyses of contemporary populations, that the extreme bottleneck clear in non-African populations was much more modest within Africa. That opened the possibility for the existence of deep structure within the continent that pre-dated the “Out of Africa” event. A deeper look at African hunter-gatherers indicated to many researchers that these groups diverged from other modern humans in the range of ~200,000 years before the well. Recent paleontological work has confirmed this genetic insight.
Where we are today is that some people are now arguing for the overthrow of the “Out-of-Africa” idea, whether by replacing it with an “Into-Africa” model of some sort, or resurrecting a more polycentric classical multi-regionalism (“some people” as evident in the increased frequency of emails and Twitter messages I get in this vein). I don’t think we’re there yet, not by any measure. But, it is now in the realm of very unlikely, not extremely unlikely (at least the “Into-Africa” model; it is clear that strong overwhelming demographic pulses from somewhere singular dominate the genome of most modern humans).
* I don’t think it is all that implausible that some Neanderthal back-migration into Africa occurred at some point in the last ~500,000.