The lost 50,000 years of non-African humanity

The figure above is from Efficiently inferring the demographic history of many populations with allele count data. This preprint came out a few months ago, but I was prompted to revisit it after reading Spectrum of Neandertal introgression across modern-day humans indicates multiple episodes of human-Neandertal interbreeding.

The latter paper indicates that there were multiple waves to Neanderthal admixture into both Europeans and East Asians. The motivation to do the analysis is that East Asians are about ~12 percent more Neanderthal than Europeans. The authors don’t reject the idea that there was ‘dilution’ of Neanderthal through selection and especially admixture with a “Basal Eurasian” group which didn’t have Neanderthal ancestry. I don’t want to get into the details of the results except for one thing: the preprint confirms a consistent finding over the past eight years that the Neanderthal contribution to the modern human genome is from a single population.

Perhaps it was a small population. Or perhaps it was a large population that had gone through a bottleneck and was genetically not very differentiated. But unlike Denisovans it seems that it was a particular Neanderthal lineage that interacted with modern humans.

Moving back to the “Basal Eurasians,” notice some details of the schematic above. The divergence of Basal Eurasians from other non-Africans was ~80,000 years ago, across an interval of 70 to 100 thousand years ago. The admixture of Basal Eurasians into the proto-LBK population occurred ~30,000 years ago, across an interval of 11 to 41 thousand years ago. Ancient DNA from North Africa indicates that Basal Eurasians were already well admixed well before 11 thousand years ago.

The other dates make sense. 50,000 years for Europeans-Han Chinese, 96,000 years for Mbuti-Eurasians, and 696,000 years for Neanderthal-modern humans.

Ancient modern humans were highly structured. We know this from within Africa. But it seems clear that modern humans who had crossed over the other side of the Sahara also exhibited the same tendency. Basal Eurasians did not mix with Neanderthal populations. I suspect that that might be due to the fact that they were in Northeast Africa. At some point in the Pleistocene a mixing event occurred. This may have been precipitated by drier conditions and human retreat into only a few habitable areas, and the original Basal Eurasian populations may have mixed into other Near Eastern groups, which were part of the broader Neanderthal-mixed populations.

The great bottleneck after the post-Eemian separation


I’ve been thinking about effective population size. Basically it’s the inferred breeding population you estimate in the present, or in many cases the past, based on the genetic variation you see within the population. Another way to say it is that it’s the population size that can explain the genetic drift that you see in the data.

To give a concrete example, the population of the New England states of America was ~1,000,000 during the 1790 Census. The vast majority of this was due to natural increase from a settler population of about ~50,000 in 1650 (total fertility rate of women in New England was seven children in the years between 1650 and 1700). Of these, ~23,000 were Puritans or the offspring of Puritans who migrated around between 1630 and 1643 (due to religious differences with the English government of the period). One might think that a population of ~1,000,000 would be genetically diverse, but the ~50,000 in 1650 matter a lot more than the ~1,000,000 in 1790. The rate of mutation accumulation is pretty slow, so a population bottleneck or subsample has a huge long-term effect.

In fact, as you probably know one of the biggest determinants of genetic variation in New England whites of 1790 is the bottleneck that they share with all other non-Africans that dates to 50,000 years or more before 1790!

And these are just the coarse demographic considerations on the broader population/historical scale. In any normal random-mating human population, there’s some reproductive variance by chance (usually it is modeled as a poisson distribution; mean and variance being the same, though from I have read the variance in mammals is usually greater than the mean).

Some people have more children, and some people have fewer children. That means that there is a census population, and a breeding population, and the breeding population is invariably smaller than the census population. Some individuals don’t reproduce to the next generation, obviously. But there are also cases where some individuals have large numbers of surviving offspring, while others have only a few.

To make it concrete I plotted the distribution of the number of children of women older than 50 years of age from the year 2000 and later in the General Social Survey (GSS). You can see that the most common number is two, but there are a fair number with three. Only about 10% of women 50 years and older have no children in the GSS.

But the curious thing is that if you weight the number by the proportion, you notice that women who have three children may not be as common as women who have two children, but they are contributing more children to the next generation than women who have the more typical two children. And, though the number of women who have five or more children is only 11% of the sample, as opposed to 14% who have one child, they contribute nearly five times as many children as those with one child to the next generation (women with six children alone contribute more than women with one child).

Basically, not all the genetic variation in a given generation is created equally. Some people will contribute more to the next generation, and that has a homogenizing effect (there are models of mutation/selection/drift which establish equilibria values of variation in a stationary state).

I’m revisiting all of this for two reasons. First, in Who We Are And How We Got Here David Reich talks about a long period of a shared population bottleneck for “Out of Africa” (all non-Africans) groups before the primary expansion ~60,000 years ago. Second, in my conversation with Matt Hahn, he was very skeptical of drawing any correspondence between effective population and some inferred census size. In hindsight I think part of it is that in most organisms census quotes are more an art than science. Not so with humans.

This made me look more into the literature for humans again. Recently Browning et al. published Ancestry-specific recent effective population size in the Americas. It’s a great paper. Basically, it uses identity by descent tracts of different ancestry to tease apart the distinctive pre-admixture effective population sizes. If you take an admixed population and assume that it was a single population random-mating indefinitely, and then work backward in time, you’re probably going to produce rather strange effective population sizes (if the two groups are about the same genetic diversity beforehand, they’ll probably show an inflated effective population, because you are assuming the two groups were a big random-mating population long before they were randomly mating!).

There are many ways to infer effective population, and the identity by descent method seems reasonable for recent time periods. And one thing about recent population size estimates for humans is that you have reasonable census estimates (you don’t just check with simulations):

Our simulations showed that biased sampling of a structured population results in underestimation of most recent effective population size. When we compare the estimated current effective sizes of HCHS/SOL country-of-origin populations to World Bank population sizes (accessed via Google Public Data Explorer) from 1995 (when the average age of the sampled individuals was around 25), we find that the ratio of current estimated effective size to 1995 population size ranges from approximately 1/60 (Ecuador) to approximately 1/4 (Cuba), with typical values around 1/10. Although estimates of effective size in the most recent generations are affected by these issues, our simulations also showed that less recent generations are not affected. Thus our estimates are useful for learning about the effective population sizes at and before admixture.

The structured part is important. For example, the paper On the importance of being structured: instantaneous coalescence rates and human evolution—lessons for ancestral population size inference? explores how structured models of gene-flow might be confused when genomic inferences assume a panmictic population. Last year a paper in PNAS, Early history of Neanderthals and Denisovans, suggested that Neanderthals were characterized by a high structured meta-population, and that low effective populations from sampled genomes in this group of humans reflects this, rather than a genuinely low census size.

Browning et al. focused on recent population size inferences. I was curious about these inferences because we can compare them to real census sizes. From this I think I can tune my intuition at least to the possibily that census size of a random mating population is not likely to be two orders of magnitude above the inferred effective population size. Conversely, the rough mammalian value of an effective population size of ~1/3 the census size seems to be a ceiling. Population structure and bottleneck aside, humans seem to have enough basal reproductive skew that effective population size is less than half of the census size.

To focus on ancient population growth (or lack thereof), I reread Inferring human population size and separation history from multiple genome sequences (Schiffels et al. 2014), Exploring Population Size Changes Using SNP Frequency Spectra (Liu et al. 2015) and Neutral genomic regions refine models of recent rapid human population growth (Gazavea et al. 2014). The first two papers seem to suggest an “Out of Africa” population bottleneck that’s pretty long, with an effective population that’s somewhat lower than 5,000 individuals. In contrast, the last paper seems to have a sharp bottleneck of 200 individuals.

Remember, different models can produce the same empirical patterns in the genome. You can reduce genetic diversity by a modest, but long, bottleneck. Or, through a very sharp short bottleneck.

In Who We Are and How We Got Here David Reich definitely leans toward a long, but more modest, bottleneck. For anthropological and archaeological reasons this seems more plausible now than it did ten years ago.

But perhaps it makes more sense now that we have more ancient DNA and a more elaborated model of human history seen through the lens of population genetics. In Schlebusch and Jakkbonson’s Tales of Human Migration, Admixture, and Selection in Africa the authors come out say “For our species’ deep history in Africa, both paleoanthropological and genetic evidence increasingly point to a multiregional origin of AMHs [anatomically modern humans] in Africa.”

They’re only saying what I hear other people talking about.

Instead of the “Out of Africa bottleneck” being defining for our species, it’s only a phenomenon which is important for peoples outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. Arguably for the majority of the existence of our species something closer to multi-regionalism was operative within modern humans.

If fact, isn’t that what the new ancient DNA shows? Pulses of admixture and gene-flow between distinct groups? Arguably multiregionalism might be the answer to our origins, but also characterize many of the dynamics after the “Out of Africa” event.

In any case, the best evidence now points to the likelihood that modern human lineages began to diversify and diverge before 200,000 years ago. Conversely, most of the ancestry of modern humans outside of Africa dates to an expansion around ~60,000 years before the present (ancient DNA and archaeology seem to agree here).

This is probably right before the Neanderthal admixture event with non-African humans, at least the modern lineages we have around today. But, it turns out it does not define the point when non-African humans diverged from the ancestral African population. Another group, “Basal Eurasians” (who may not have been Eurasian at all), diverged before the expansion of all eastern non-Africans, Oceanians, as well as the ancestors of Pleistocene Europeans and Siberians. It does not seem that Basal Eurasians had any Neanderthal admixture. Basal Eurasian ancestry is substantial in the Middle East today (although lower than 50%), and non-trivial across broad swaths of Europe and South Asia, due to the expansion of farming. They seem to have been well mixed in places like North Africa with other Eurasian groups ~15,000 years ago. Presumably that was a “back to Africa” migration, since these people had Neanderthal ancestry.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the ancestors of Basal Eurasians/non-Africans must have gone through their shared bottleneck well before ~60,000 years before the present. And, it may have happened on the African continent. So with that, I’ll quote Schiffels et al.:

This comparison reveals that no clean split can explain the inferred progressive decline of relative cross coalescence rate. In particular, the early beginning of the drop would be consistent with an initial formation of distinct populations prior to 150kya, while the late end of the decline would be consistent with a final split around 50kya. This suggests a long period of partial divergence with ongoing genetic exchange between Yoruban and Non-African ancestors that began beyond 150kya, with population structure within Africa, and lasted for over 100,000 years, with a median point around 60-80kya at which time there was still substantial genetic exchange, with half the coalescences between populations and half within (see Discussion). We also observe that the rate of genetic divergence is not uniform but can be roughly divided into two phases. First, up until about 100kya, the two populations separated more slowly, while after 100kya genetic exchange dropped faster.

David Reich’s group, and others, now posit the existence of “Basal Human” population that mixed into West Africans, who can be modeled as primarily proto-East African (without Eurasian admixture), as well as this ancient outgroup. This means that estimates of divergences with non-Africans from something like MSMC may generate a composite if proto-East Africans are closer to the ancestors of non-Africans, which seems likely. One likely model is that the “Out of Africa” population emerged out of the northern edge of this proto-East African distribution of modern humans over 100,000 years ago (but after groups like the Khoisan and Basal Humans had already diverged).

Looking at Schiffel et al., they seem to posit lower in divergence times than seems likely to me. Is that perhaps due to unaccounted for admixture in lineages which fuse together groups which were earlier distinct?

In any case, with details about the divergence dates set aside, the MSMC results are actually in line with a new congealing consensus. Deep structure within Africa, but gene-flow between distinct populations, for at least ~100,000 years (possibly more). This is the period when population structure was quite fluid and indistinct along the East Africa continuum out of with non-Africans emerged.

Also, the archaeological evidence is now strongly suggestive of modern humans in places like Southeast Asia over 10,000 years before the wave which led to the ancestry of most extant populations. In fact, we know that this sort of early migration with no descendants isn’t abnormal. The first modern humans in Europe left no descendants (at least in any appreciable quantity). And the Altai Neanderthal seems to have modern-like admixture that dates to ~100,000 years before the present.

With all the evidence that modern humans were present in Africa, and expansively so, for hundreds of thousands of years, it seems unlikely that they never mixed with “archaic” Eurasian  lineages (and vice versa). In fact, as we obtain more and more Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes perhaps we’ll find that a rapid expansion like the one that occurred ~60,000 years ago across Eurasia and Oceania happened before, out of and/or into Africa.

Looping back to the effective population issue, the effective population of modern non-Africans seems to have been below ~5,000 for a while. There was minimal gene-flow with other populations for many generations. Reich has a schematic of 40,000 years between 90,000 and 50,000 BP in Who We Are and How We Got Here. But that’s obviously just a ballpark figure. I have a hard time believing that the census size was around 500,000. The world population 10,000 years ago is usually estimated to be 1 to 10 million. Human populations were probably much larger at the end of the Pleistocene than 100,000 years ago. But a figure of 10% effective would give 50,000, which seems a reasonable number, especially with the likelihood that we’re talking about many tribes over a wide ecological zone. Meta-population dynamics of extinction and resettlement in inclement periods probably drove down the effective population.

The separation seems to be distinct from the older multiregional phase. What could explain it? The existence of the Sahara, and periods of extreme desertification seems the most likely candidate. I can’t say much with any credibility because I don’t know the archaeology and paleoclimate literature, but before domesticated animals, it was probably difficult for hunter-gatherers to make a go of it in the deep Sahara during the driest phases.

If I had to bet, the Eemian interglacial, 130 to 115 thousand years ago, is when I would assume there was:

  1. Lots of gene flow across the Sahara, perhaps in both directions
  2. A major population expansion of humans, of all sorts

This gives plenty of time for a wave of modern humans to push east, probably going through milder climates, rather than expanding north into Neanderthal or Denisovan territory. Eventually, some group must have mixed with the ancestors of the Altai Neanderthals. It seems likely that a cold and dry spell after the Eemian would have been optimized more to the well adapted Eurasian groups, and modern populations would have withdrawn into refugia. The brutally expanding Sahara would have divided the majority of modern humans, who existed in the meta-populations to the south that dated back hundreds of the thousands of years, from the groups on the northern fringe.

One can imagine that large numbers of modern humans were either absorbed or went extinct with the expansion of Neanderthals and other archaics. Though Neanderthals and Denisovans were interfertile with moderns, the lineages were still distinct enough that it looks like there was some hybrid breakdown. Just as modern humans seem to have purged many Neanderthal alleles from our genome, the opposite dynamic was probably at work.

There was clearly some structure in the relict modern human group that was separated from the African populations. Basal Eurasians did not mix with Neanderthals, but the ancestors of all other non-African humans did. Though one has to be careful about such geographical inferences, that suggests to me that the range of modern humans in the period between 60,000 to 80,000 years ago extended further back into pockets of northeast Africa, where no contact with Neanderthals would have occurred. Perhaps, in the end, we’ll end up thinking that the Basal Eurasians in some ways were a lot more like Africans south of the Sahara, as they didn’t undergo the massive range expansion of other populations during the Upper Paleolithic.

I’ll end with some predictions.

  • Ancient DNA of proto-moderns and archaics in eastern Eurasia dated to between 50,000 to 100,000 years BP will be analyzed at some point and will exhibit a fair amount of admixture. That is, the Altai Neanderthal was not exceptional, and probably relatively attenuated. I’m moderately confident of this.
  • The pre-60,000 year eastern Eurasians will be found to have left some of their genes in modern eastern Eurasians. Especially in Southeast Asia and Oceanian. Probably in the 1-10% range. I’m moderately confident of this.
  • The Denisovan ancestry in Oceanians is mediated by a “first wave” group “Out of Africa.” I have low confidence in this, but I really wouldn’t be surprised either way. My confidence in my confidence is low!
  • At some point we’ll obtain sequence from a 1 million year old hominin somewhere in the colder/drier climes of Eurasia (we have a 900,000 year old horse genome). This will predate Neanderthal/Denisovans. We will see from this that some of these super-archaic populations left their heritage in later archaics, and therefore our own lineage. I’m rather confident of this.
  • By hook or crook we’ll get more ancient genomes out of African samples, and confirm a lot of ancient population structure, as well as some gene-flow from archaic non-modern lineages. Probably around the same range you see in non-Africans (though some of the gene-flow may also apply to non-Africans, since they didn’t separate from eastern Africans until 100,000 to 150,000 years ago). I’m rather confident of this.
  • H. naledi will return sequence at some point. I’m very confident of this. I don’t have inside knowledge, but I know they’re going to keep trying. They are getting more samples.
  • H. naledi will be found to have contributed ancestry to modern southern African populations. I’m moderately confident of this.
  • At some point ancient genomes from the Americas will confirm the existence of an earlier group which was only distantly related to modern New World populations descended mostly from Siberians. There is indirect evidence of this group from South American populations, but we’ll get individuals who are much more distinct at some point in the future. I’m moderately confident of this.
  • Basal Eurasians will be found to have inhabited Southern Arabia/Persian Gulf region. But “pure” population will have been found to have disappeared around the Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago, as the human populations to the north moved south, and the Near East’s southern fringe became drier. I’m moderately confident of this.

The 4,000 year explosion


The figure above shows a most interesting result from a new preprint, FADS1 and the timing of human adaptation to agriculture. It shows the allele frequency change using ancient Eurasian genomes for the derived allele at FADS1.

In case you don’t know why FADS1 is important, it’s been implicated in variation long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) metabolism. The derived allele, embedded in haplotype D in the above preprint, seems more optimized for plant-based diets, because of the higher activity of synthesis of LCPUFAs (which one might otherwise obtain from marine resources, as is likely among Inuit).

So the standard model is that the Neolithic changed things, as humans began to adapt to cereal-based diet diets. This preprint suggests maybe not:

Our analysis shows that selection at the FADS locus was not tightly linked to the development of agriculture. Further, it suggests that the strongest signals of recent human adaptation may not have been driven by the agricultural transition but by more recent changes in environment or by increased efficiency of selection due to increases in effective population size.

The authors are explicit that the derived allele at FADS1, which is at ~60% in modern Europeans, was under strong selection during the Bronze Age. In fact, this allele, which is common in Africans, may have been absent in most Paleolithic Eurasians. Using various methods they infer in fact that the ancestors of non-Africans may have been subject to selection for the ancestral variant. Their timing estimates indicate that this predates the standard expansion period starting ~60,000 BP (there was also an older selection event for the derived variant within Africa). Additionally, the authors posit that the derived variant was introduced into Europeans due to the Basal Eurasian ancestry in farmers.

They posit two dynamics that might drive the Bronze Age selection events. First, they suggest that the change in environment was actually more dramatic than that during the Paleolithic-Neolithic transition. Second, they suggest that effective populations were much smaller before the Bronze Age, so selection was not as efficacious (or, more precisely, drift effects were dominant in shaping variation).

This idea that the Neolithic isn’t quite as important, or singular, is somewhat of a surprise. But we may need to consider it. Another line of research, using high-quality modern day sequences rather than ancient genotypes, implies that there has been a lot of recent selection, and that’s likely going on today.

Second, one of the major takeaways from The Fate of Rome is that pandemics probably weren’t a feature of Neolithic small-scale societies. Rather, pandemics relied on long-distance trade and movement, as well as concentrations such as urban centers. Though certain endemic diseases probably arose in the Neolithic, the periodic sweep of pandemics required greater social and cultural complexity and overall human density.

The analogy then is rather straightforward. Just as microbes can move faster and more efficiently in an interconnected world, so such a world is much closer to a panmictic one. Earlier work suggested that effective population size of Neolithic farmers was not particularly small, but perhaps there are dynamics being missed by that simple summary value when it comes to the interconnectedness of the Eurasian landscape triggered by the emergence of pastoralism, and the necessary reaction of larger-scale polities.

A simple test of this would be to compare selection signals in a place like Papua New Guinea, which did not seem to undergo the same sort of pressures as Bronze Age Eurasian societies in relation to reduced diversity. I presume that New World societies as well would be an interesting test.

Y chromosomal star-phylogenies as inter-group competition between paternal lineages

The figure to the left should be familiar to readers of this weblog. It is taken from A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture (Kamin et al.). Over the past few years a peculiar fact long suspected or inferred has come into sharp focus: some of the Y chromosome haplogroups very common today were not so common in the past, and their frequency changed very rapidly over a short time period.

What Kamin et al. did was look at sequence data across the Y chromosome to make deeper inferences. The issue is that the Y chromosome is not genetically very diverse. Earlier generations of researchers focused on highly mutable microsatellite regions for identification. While microsatellites are good for identification and classification because of their genetic diversity, they are not as good when it comes to making evolutionary inferences about parameters such as time since last common ancestor. They have very high and variable mutation rates.

Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are probably better for a lot of evolutionary inference, but the Y chromosome doesn’t have too many of these. SNP-chip era technology which focuses on a select subset of polymorphisms at specific locations didn’t have much to choose from and likely missed rare variants.

This is where whole-genome sequence of the Y comes in. It retrieves maximal information, and with that, the authors of Kamin et al. could definitely confirm that some Y chromosomal lineages under explosive expansion ~4,000 years ago after a bottleneck.

By and large ancient DNA take a different angle, focusing on genome-wide autosomal ancestry, and lacking in high-coverage whole-genome sequences. But they have confirmed the inferences from whole-genomes that some of these lineages exhibit explosive growth in the last ~4,000 years. One moment they were rare, and the next moment ubiquitous.

But geneticists are geneticists. They’re interested in genetical questions, methods, and dynamics. To be frank cultural models for how those genetic patterns might have come about are either exceedingly simple and probably true (e.g., gene-culture coevolution with lactase persistence), or vague and handwavy. With the surfeit of genomic data to analyze it isn’t surprising that this happens.

This is why researchers in the field of cultural evolution need to get involved. They’re model-builders and should see which models predict the copious empirical results we have now when it comes to genetic change over time.

For several years now I have been asserting that inter-group competition of paternal lineages best explains the pattern of Y chromosome expansions ~4,000 years ago. A new paper brings forth a formal model which explores this hypothesis, Cultural hitchhiking and competition between patrilineal kin groups explain the post-Neolithic Y-chromosome bottleneck:

In human populations, changes in genetic variation are driven not only by genetic processes, but can also arise from cultural or social changes. An abrupt population bottleneck specific to human males has been inferred across several Old World (Africa, Europe, Asia) populations 5000–7000 BP. Here, bringing together anthropological theory, recent population genomic studies and mathematical models, we propose a sociocultural hypothesis, involving the formation of patrilineal kin groups and intergroup competition among these groups. Our analysis shows that this sociocultural hypothesis can explain the inference of a population bottleneck. We also show that our hypothesis is consistent with current findings from the archaeogenetics of Old World Eurasia, and is important for conceptions of cultural and social evolution in prehistory.

Their model is interesting because inter-group competition between paternal lineages can result in a loss of haplogroup diversity without huge reproductive skew. That is, instead of a highly polygynous society, one can simply posit that group dynamics of expansion and extinction produce expansions of Y chromosomal lineages.

A formal model synthesized with genomic results is a major step forward, though I haven’t dug into the methods (computational or analytic). Presumably, this is a first step.

But the discussion does review a lot of anthropological literature about the nature of human conflict and social interaction. Basically, it seems that between nomadic hunter-gatherers and before chiefdoms, biologically defined paternal clans were often the organizing principle of society. To some extent this makes total sense since the meta-ethnic religious and social identities explicitly appeal to fictive relationships of blood even after blood was no longer paramount. Ancient Near Eastern kings addressed each other in familial terms (e.g., “brother” and “son”), while universal religions deploy the construct of brotherhood.

In Empires of the Silk Road the author makes the case that these bands of brothers were more influential in shaping history than we realize today. Not surprisingly, the authors of the above paper suggest that the Inner Asian nomad zone is where star-phylogenies have been most pervasive and persist down to historical time. As in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature it seems that the rise of the state suppressed the viciousness of the paternal kin group. How do we know this? Because the period of the maximal explosion of star-phylogenies seem to be a transient between the early Neolithic and the historical age.

The Y chromosomal literature is just the low hanging fruit. I suspect in the next decade cultural evolutionary models will be brought to bear on the huge mountain of genomic data….

Citation: Cultural hitchhiking and competition between patrilineal kin groups explain the post-Neolithic Y-chromosome bottleneck Tian Chen Zeng, Alan J. Aw & Marcus W. Feldman.

Selection is going on with SLC24A5….

The ancestral allele for rs1426654 at SLC24A5

 
On this week’s episode of The Insight, I talked to Matt Hahn about why he wrote his new book, his opinions on “Neutral Theory”, and what he thought about David Reich’s op-ed. Without Spencer’s supervision, I have to admit that I think I lost control and just went “full nerd”. Next week we’re dropping Carl Zimmer’s podcast, so rest assured that the world will come back into balance, and The Insight will be more welcoming to civilians!

At a certain point, Matt and I were discussing allele frequency differences between populations and he came close to saying all such differences between human populations were of modest frequency in relation to pairwise comparisons (e.g., 40% vs. 49%). Obviously, this is not true, because there is always the huge difference in SLC24A5 at SNP rs1426654 (at Duffy and a few other loci). A substitution of a G for an A converts the codon from alanine to threonine.

You have heard of this locus because of a paper in 2005, SLC24A5, a putative cation exchanger, affects pigmentation in zebrafish and humans. This paper came out in December of 2005, a few years after Armand Leroi wrote in Mutants that geneticists still hadn’t come to grips with normal variation in pigmentation in humans. The above publication was the first step in solving this question in the years between 2005 to 2010, at least to a good first approximation.

In the sample in the paper they explain 25-40% of the variation in melanin index between Africans and Europeans with this single genetic change (for various technical reasons it’s probably not that big an effect, though it is still big, and probably the largest effect quantitative trait locus for pigmentation in the human genome).

It turns out that this mutation, the derived variant, is almost disjoint is frequency between Europeans and Africans. That is, about ~100% of Africans carry the ancestry G base at while ~0% of Europeans carry the G base (as opposed to the A base). Interestingly, East Asians carry the G base at ~100% frequency as well. If you genotype an anonymous individual and their genotype is AG or GG on at rs1426654 then it is highly likely that that individual is not a European.

To give an example of how this works, in 2013 I stumbled onto a paper which genotyped 101 Europeans from Cape Town in South Africa. That means there are 202 alleles (two per person) at rs1426654. Of these, 5 of the alleles were ancestral (G). From this, I immediately concluded that it was highly likely that the Afrikaaner people of South Africa have non-European ancestry. I came to this conclusion because of 5 copies of the ancestral allele, ~2.5%, is shockingly high for a European population, and it was long surmised that the Afrikaaner people had some non-European heritage (Khoisan, Bantu, South and Southeast Asian) ancestry. The major of the whites sampled in Cape Town could have been Afrikaaners (I’ve confirmed this with genome-wide data).

To get a sense of where my intuitions come from you need to look at allele counts within populations. Using 1000 Genomes, Yale’s Alfred, and Gnomad I assembled a representative list to give you a sense of what’s going on. Using 126,548 counted alleles in Gnomad for individuals of European (non-Finnish) descent you see that 0.38% out of the total, 486, are ancestral.

Population Ancestral alleles Total alleles Freq
Samaritan 0 74 0%
Basque 0 216 0%
Greeks (Thrace, Athens) 0 184 0%
Burusho 0 50 0%
Pandit Brahmin, Kashmir 0 40 0%
European (Non-Finnish) 486 126548 0%
Ashkenazi Jewish 47 10148 0%
European (Finnish) 329 25790 1%
Iraq Kurds 1 68 2%
Yemenite Jews 2 78 3%
Havyaka Brahmin, Karnataka 2 62 3%
Palestinian 4 122 3%
Gujarati 10 206 5%
Tunisian Berber 6 110 5%
Andalusian 14 252 6%
Iranian 6 84 7%
Pashtun 21 190 11%
Uttar Pradesh Brahmin 4 34 12%
Pandit Brahmin, Haryana 13 78 17%
Punjabi 42 192 22%
South Asian 6921 30774 22%
Kalash 14 48 29%
Telugu 71 204 35%
Bangladeshi 80 172 47%
Sri Lanka Tamil 105 204 51%
Adi-Dravida, Karnataka 21 34 62%
Masai Kenya 192 286 67%
Austro-Asiatic tribe, Odisha 43 56 77%
Luhya Kenya 155 188 82%
Hausa 68 76 90%
Mende Sierra Leone 155 170 91%
Gambian 209 226 92%
Ibo 90 94 96%
Austro-Asiatic tribe, Odisha 92 96 96%
Esan Nigeria 193 198 97%
Yoruba Nigeria 213 216 99%
Biaka 135 136 99%
East Asian 18728 18856 99%
Ghana 140 140 100%
Mbuti 74 74 100%

Last fall Crawford et al. reported that rs1426654 is embedded in a haplotype that’s about ~30,000 years ago. Additionally, they contend that its presence within Africa is probably no earlier than the Holocene, the last ~12,000 years.  Martin et al. report that KhoeSan exhibit higher frequencies of the derived allele because of Eurasian back-migration and then in situ natural selection. Of course, not all Eurasians. Most East Asians have the ancestral variant of rs1426654.

This leaves us with West Eurasians, North Africans, and South Asians. I’ve put a few South Asian populations in the list to show you that there is a wide range of variation in allele frequencies. The South Asians in Gnomad, probably mostly Diaspora, have the ancestral variant at only 22%. In contrast, Austro-Asiatic speaking South Asian groups from northeast India have very high frequencies of the ancestral variant. There has clearly been in situ selection in some South Asian populations for the derived variant at rs1426654. Ancestral North Indian groups (ANI) probably brought the derived allele, and Ancient Ancestral South Indians (AASI) probably tended to carry the ancestral allele, like East Eurasians and Oceanians. Additionally, South Asian populations often have high drift. Some of the differences in the Alfred data seem to be impacted by this.

The situation in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe is different.  In the Middle East and North Africa, the ancestral variant is present at frequencies around 1-10%.  Some of this can probably be attributed to admixture from Africa and in some cases South and East Asian populations. Ancient DNA from the Middle East and North Africa presents a mixed picture. The farmers who brought the Neolithic to Europe carried the derived variant at rs1426654, and some of the ancient Middle Eastern samples carry it. But not all. The recent Iberiomauserian samples which date to ~15,000 years ago don’t seem to have had the derived variant.

Though the hunter-gatherers of Western Europe only seem to have carried the ancestral variant at rs1426654, the hunter-gatherers of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe did exhibit the derived variant in some frequency, though lower than modern Europeans.

My own hunch is that the original genetic background against which the A mutation at rs1426654 emerged will be found increasing in frequency first somewhere in the Near East after the Last Glacial Maximum. But no ancient population shows the frequencies of the derived variant we see in modern Europeans. In isolated populations subject to drift it wouldn’t be surprising if the ancestral variant decreased to ~0%, But in European populations today in the vast majority of cases the ancestral variant is far lower than 1%, even though we know that within the last 10,000 years the ancestral populations streams had several groups with very high frequencies of that ancestral variant. The low frequency is not due to a freakish bottleneck all across Europe. It has to be selection

One thing I have pointed out is that this very low frequency of the ancestral variant indicates that the advantage at rs1426654 for the A allele in Europe is additive. In Northern Europe, the frequency of the derived variant that confers lactase persistence tops out at around ~90 percent. We know this region of the genome has been targeted by natural selection, but lactase persistence also happens to express dominantly genetically. That is, one variant of the mutant allele confers the phenotype. Once you hit ~90 percent of the derived variant only ~1 percent of the population would be lactose intolerant homozygotes (two copies of the ancestral variant). In the Gnomad sample of 60,000+ Europeans, they count three homozygote genotypes rs1426654. That’s 0.005%.

Something is happening at rs1426654. Selection. But why? No one really has any explanation beyond the obvious.

The peoples of the Maghreb have some Pleistocene roots

Moroccan Berber man

The Maghreb is an important and interesting place. In the history of Western civilization, the tension between Carthage, the ancient port city based out of modern-day Tunisia, and Rome, is one of the more dramatic and tragic rivalries that has resonances down through the ages. Read Adrian Goldsworthy’s chapter on the Battle of Cannae in The Punic Wars for what I’m alluding to (and of course there was Cato the Younger’s dramatic remonstrations).

Later Roman Africa, which really encompassed northern Morocco, coastal Algeria, and Tunisia and Tripolitania, became a major social and economic pillar of the Imperium. Not only did men such as the emperor Septimius Severus and St. Augustine have roots in the region, but these provinces were a major economic bulwark for the Western Empire in its last century. The wealthy Senators of the 4th and 5th century were often absentee landlords of vast estates in North Africa. The fall of these provinces to the Vandals and Alans in the 430s began the transformation of the Western Empire based in Rome into a more regional player, rather than a true hegemon (perhaps an analogy here can be made to the loss of Anatolia by the Byzantines in the 11th century).

Another important aspect of North Africa is that it is the westernmost extension of the region possibly settled by Near Eastern farmers in Africa. The native Afro-Asiatic Berber languages seem to have been dominant in the region despite the influence and prestige of Punic and Latin in the cities when Muslim Arabs conquered the region in the late 7th century. The genetic-demographic characteristics of the region are relevant to attempts to understand the origins of the Afro-Asiatic languages more generally since Berber is part of the clade with the Semitic languages.

A preprint and a paper utilizing ancient DNA have shed a great deal of light on these questions recently. The paper is in Science, Pleistocene North African genomes link Near Eastern and sub-Saharan African human populations. The preprint is Ancient genomes from North Africa evidence prehistoric migrations to the Maghreb from both the Levant and Europe. They are in broad agreement, though they cover somewhat different periods.

The figure below is the big finding of the Science paper:

They retrieved some genotypes from a site in northern Morocco, Taforalt, which dates to ~15,000 years before the present. This is a Pleistocene site, before the rise of agriculture. The Taforalt individuals are about 65% Eurasian in affinity, and 35% Sub-Saharan African. This confirms that the Eurasian back-migration to northern Africa predates the Holocene, just as many archaeologists and geneticists have reported earlier.

The samples from the preprint date to a later time. IAM in the samples dates to 7,200 years before the present, and KEB to ~5,000 years before the present. It seems pretty clear that the IAM samples in the preprint exhibit continuity with the Taforalt samples. Though it is not too emphasized in the preprint the lower K’s seem to strongly suggest that the IAM samples have Sub-Saharan African ancestry, just like the Taforalt samples which are nearly 8,000 years older. In the KEB samples, the fraction drops, probably diluted in part by ancestry related to what we elsewhere term “Early European Farmer” (EEF), related to the Anatolian farming expansion.

Both the Taforalt and IAM samples, in particular, seem to exhibit strong affinities to Natufian/Levantine peoples. Additionally, many of these samples carry Y chromosome haplogroup E1b, just like some of the Natufians. These results indicate that the Natufian-North African populations were exchanging genes or one cline rather deep in the Pleistocene.

Though various methods have suggested that there is a lot of recent Sub-Saharan African admixture, dating to the Arab period, in North Africa, these results suggest that much of it is far older. The Mozabites, as an isolated Berber group, reflect this tendency. Though some individuals have inflated African ancestry due to recent admixture, much of it is older and evener. And yet the Mozabites seem to have less Sub-Saharan African ancestry on average than the IAM sample.

There aren’t enough data points to make a strong inference about the temporal transect, but these few results imply a decline in Sub-Saharan ancestral component after the Pleistocene with further farming migration, and then a rise again with the trans-Saharan slave trade during the Muslim period. Another issue, highlighted in the preprint, is likely heterogeneity within the Maghreb in ancestry (lowland populations in modern North Africa tend to have more Sub-Saharan ancestry due to where slaves were settled).

In the Science paper the authors make an attempt to adduce the origin of the Sub-Saharan contribution to the Taforalt individuals. The result is that there is no modern or ancient proxy that totally fits the bill. These individuals have affinities to many Sub-Saharan African populations.  The Sub-Saharan component is likely heterogeneous, but attempts to model European genetic variation during the Ice Age ran into trouble that divergence from modern populations was quite great. Until we get more ancient DNA there probably won’t be too much more clarity.

On the issue of the Eurasian ancestry, it’s clearly quite like the Natufians. But curiously the authors find that the Neanderthal ancestry in these samples is greater than that found in early Holocene Iran samples. From this, the authors conclude that they may have had a lower fraction of “Basal Eurasian” (BEu) than those populations further to the east. But already 15,000 years ago BEu populations were mixed with more generic West Eurasians to generate the back-migration to Africa. If BEu diverged from other Eurasians >50,000 years ago, then it may have merged back into the “Out-of-Africa” populations around or before the Last Glacial Maximum, ~20,000 years ago.

Finally, the authors looked at some pigmentation genes. Curiously the Taforalt and IAM individuals did not carry the derived variants for pigmentation found in many West and South Eurasians, but the KEB did. This confirms results from Europe, and population genomic inference in modern samples, that selection for derived pigmentation variants is relatively recent in the Holocene.

I do want to add that one possibility about the Sub-Saharan ancestry in the Taforalt, and probably all modern North Africans to a lesser extent, is that it is ancient and local. We now know proto-modern humans were present in the region >300,000 years ago. Northwest Africa may have been part of the multi-regional metapopulation of H. sapiens, as opposed to the Eurasian biogeographic zone that it is often placed, before a post-LGM back migration of Eurasians.

The Ancient Neanderthal Mariner

More recent stuff on Neanderthals of interest, Neandertals, Stone Age people may have voyaged the Mediterranean:

A decade ago, when excavators claimed to have found stone tools on the Greek island of Crete dating back at least 130,000 years, other archaeologists were stunned—and skeptical. But since then, at that site and others, researchers have quietly built up a convincing case for Stone Age seafarers—and for the even more remarkable possibility that they were Neandertals, the extinct cousins of modern humans.

But a growing inventory of stone tools and the occasional bone scattered across Eurasia tells a radically different story. (Wooden boats and paddles don’t typically survive the ages.) Early members of the human family such as Homo erectus are now known to have crossed several kilometers of deep water more than a million years ago in Indonesia, to islands such as Flores and Sulawesi. Modern humans braved treacherous waters to reach Australia by 65,000 years ago. But in both cases, some archaeologists say early seafarers might have embarked by accident, perhaps swept out to sea by tsunamis.

The effective population size of Australian people is just too large for me to imagine that it was only a few individuals swept out on driftwood. There was some sort of sea-going craft which mediated migration to Sahul from Sundaland. Just because we have only recent evidence of sea-going craft doesn’t mean that they weren’t around for tens of thousands of years before that.

I’ve been hearing about Neanderthal tools on islands like Crete, which were never connected with the European mainland, for a while now. It seems that people are finally convinced that this is the real deal, as the stratigraphy came together to confirm dates. One thing that seems obvious from this, as well as Neanderthal “art”, is that the differences between modern humans and Neanderthals were more quantitative than qualitative. Differences of degree, not of kind.

It is hard to deny that modern human expansion between 60 and 15 thousand years ago is sui generis. Hominins didn’t make it to the New World or Sahul, what later became Oceania, until our own kind. There’s also a fair amount of evidence that our lineage pushed the northern frontier of human habitation beyond what Neanderthals ever did. But in the process of marking off our distinctiveness, it seems to me that we’ve overemphasized the differences between us and Neanderthals, and dismissed or ignored evidence of “human-like” “advanced” behaviors from them.

I’ll still go with the prediction that we’ll never find a singular gene which marks us off from other human lineages.

There were possibly late archaic introgression events in Eurasia

A few weeks ago I posted on the strong likelihood that there were at least two Denisovan admixture events in Eurasia into modern humans. That’s probably the floor, not the ceiling. We have an Altai Denisovan genome, but the proportion is so low in most of South and Southeast Asia I don’t think we have a good grasp of how that component differs from the Oceanian fraction, which is much higher.

At the AAPA meeting last week I noticed something strange in one of the presentations: introgressed Denisovan variants which were present among East Asian populations, but lacking elsewhere. The fractions were not >50%, but they were >10%. The Denisovan variants were nearly absent outside of this core zone of East Asians.

There are two possible reasons for this distribution. One reason is that Denisovan variants were segregating in East Asians for thousands of years, and a common bottleneck, or, more likely selection, drove them up in frequency. Another, not exclusive, explanation is that admixture occurred in East Asia relatively late. The Denisovan signature is totally absent in the New World. Either that’s selection or drift eliminating variation, or, it’s the fact that this admixture event happened in East Asia less than about 30,000 years ago when Native American populations’ East Asian-like source population began to divergence from that of East Asians.

One thing that we know from paleontology is that species exist before the remains we find, and persist after the remains we find. It’s quite possible that small relic populations of Denisovans persisted for thousands of years after modern humans came to dominate the East Asian landscape.

So merfolk are a real thing now: adaptation to diving

When Rasmus Nielsen presented preliminary work on diving adaptations a few years ago at ASHG I really didn’t know what to think. To be honest it seemed kind of crazy. Everyone was freaking out over it…and I guess I should have. But it just seemed so strange I couldn’t process it. High altitude adaptations, I understood. But underwater adaptations?

The paper is out now, and open access, Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads. There are a lot of moving parts in it, so I really recommend Carl Zimmer’s piece, Bodies Remodeled for a Life at Sea:

On Thursday in the journal Cell, a team of researchers reported a new kind of adaptation — not to air or to food, but to the ocean. A group of sea-dwelling people in Southeast Asia have evolved into better divers.

When Dr. Ilardo compared scans from the two villages, she found a stark difference. The Bajau had spleens about 50 percent bigger on average than those of the Saluan.

Only some Bajau are full-time divers. Others, such as teachers and shopkeepers, have never dived. But they, too, had large spleens, Dr. Ilardo found. It was likely the Bajau are born that way, thanks to their genes.

A number of genetic variants have become unusually common in the Bajau, she found. The only plausible way for this to happen is natural selection: the Bajau with those variants had more descendants than those who lacked them.

As some of you might know “sea nomads” are common across much of Southeast Asia. The Bajau are just one major group. The anthropology here is not surprising…but the biology most definitely is. For various technical reasons, the authors didn’t have extremely fine-grained genome data (high coverage sequence data, or very high-density chips). So they didn’t do some haplotype-based tests (e.g., iHS), though that might not matter anyhow (see below why). But, looking at the genome-wide relatedness and comparing that to makers which deviated from that expectation, both of which they could do robustly, the authors narrowed in on candidates for targets of selection. From the paper: “Remarkably, the top hit of our selection scan (Table 1) is SNP rs7158863, located just upstream of BDKRB2, the only gene thus far suggested to be associated with the diving response in humans.

There are many cases where researchers find selection signals in an ORF of unknown function. In this case, the top hit happens to be exactly in light with the biological characteristic you’re already curious about. The alignment is so good it’s hard to believe.

But wait, there’s more! Spleen size variation is not due to variation on just one locus. It’s polygenic, albeit probably dominated by larger effect quantitative trait loci (QTLs) than something like height (so more like skin color). They compared the Bajau to a nearby population, the Saluan, as well as Han Chinese as an outgroup. On the whole the distribution of allele frequency differences should reflect the phylogeny (Han(Bajau, Saluan)). The key is to look for cases where the Bajau are the outgroup. From the paper:

While some of the selection signals uniquely present in the Bajau may be related to other environmental factors, such as the pathogens, several of the other top hits also fall in candidate genes associated with traits of possible importance for diving. Examples include FAM178B, which encodes a protein that forms a stable complex with carbonic anhydrase, the primary enzyme responsible for maintaining carbon dioxide/bicarbonate balance, thereby helping maintain the pH of the blood….

FAM1788 shows up again later:

We identified one region overlapping chr2:97627143, which falls in the gene FAM178B, that falls in the 99% quantile of the genome-wide distribution for the fD statistic (Martin et al., 2015). Of the populations considered, this region exclusively stands out in the Bajau, and the signal appears strongest when using Denisova as source. Notably, this region was also proposed as a candidate for Denisovan introgression in Oceanic populations by….

What they’re saying here is that the allele at this locus adapted to diving may have come originally from the Denisovans! Remember, we already know that one of the Tibetan high altitude adaptations come from the Denisovans. So this isn’t surprising, but it is pretty cool. But most of the other hits don’t seem to be introgressed. That is, they come from modern humans (or have been segregating in our species for a long, long, time).

Many of the alleles found at high frequencies in the Bajau are found in other populations, just as very low frequencies. This implies that selection is operating on standing variation. Another suggestion that this is so is that the widths of the regions of the genome impacted by selection seem rather narrow. In contrast, the Eurasian adaptation to lactose digestion is from a de novo mutation, something that wasn’t at high frequency at all in the ancestral human populations. The sweep is strong and powerful around that single mutation, and huge swaps of the genome around it “hitchhiked” along so that on a population-wide level the area around the mutational target was homogenized (basically, a lot of one single original mutant human is found around that causal variant for lactase persistence).

Anyone who has learned basic quantitative genetics knows that one way to change a mean trait value is just to change the allele frequencies at a lot of different loci…over time you’ll have a lot of low-frequency alleles present in an individual which would otherwise never have occurred. Eventually, you can have a median value which is outside of the range of the original distribution. The mechanism here in a dynamic sense seems totally comprehensible, though as Carl Zimmer notes, and the rather short-shrift given in the Cell paper suggest, they’re not sure in a proximate sense how the selection is working (i.e., obviously there is a fitness implication but how does it manifest? Do people die? Are they unable to support a family?).

One key issue is to consider the demographic history of these people. The authors tried to model it genetically:

We found a model compatible with the data that has a divergence time of ∼16 kya, with subsequent high migration from Bajau to Saluan and low migration from Saluan to Bajau (for details see STAR Methods). We note that the estimate of 16 kya may reflect the divergence of old admixture components shared in different proportions by the Saluan and the Bajau, similarly to, for example, European populations being closely related to each other but differing in the proportion of ancient admixture components….

The authors cite papers which outline the real story about what happened, so they know that the model is somewhat unrealistic. For example, Ancient genomes document multiple waves of migration in Southeast Asian prehistory:

Southeast Asia is home to rich human genetic and linguistic diversity, but the details of past population movements in the region are not well known. Here, we report genome-wide ancient DNA data from thirteen Southeast Asian individuals spanning from the Neolithic period through the Iron Age (4100-1700 years ago). Early agriculturalists from Man Bac in Vietnam possessed a mixture of East Asian (southern Chinese farmer) and deeply diverged eastern Eurasian (hunter-gatherer) ancestry characteristic of Austroasiatic speakers, with similar ancestry as far south as Indonesia providing evidence for an expansive initial spread of Austroasiatic languages. In a striking parallel with Europe, later sites from across the region show closer connections to present-day majority groups, reflecting a second major influx of migrants by the time of the Bronze Age.

The upshot is that the predominant genetic character of Southeast Asia dates to the Neolithic, and to a great extent even more recently. The deep divergence between two Austronesian groups may be an artifact of drift in one group (probably the Bajau), or different proportions of admixture from the primary ancestral components in maritime Southeast Asia: Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, and indigenous hunter-gatherer. As per Lipson 2014 the Bajau are probably mostly Austronesian but may have Negrito ancestry from the Phillippines, as well as indigenous hunter-gatherer more closely related to Malaysian Negritos. There probably isn’t so much Austro-Asiatic in Sulawesi, but I’d bet the farmers have more of that.

Ultimately the question here is are the adaptations to diving old or new? Anthropologists and historians have all sorts of theories, as reported in the Carl Zimmer article and hinted at in the paper. My own bet is that they are both old and new. By this, I mean that some sort of maritime lifestyle was surely practiced by indigenous people between the end of the last Ice Age and the arrival of farmers. But if the variation was present in humans more generally, the Austronesians would probably also have the capacity for the diving adaptations. Mixing with hunter-gatherers and another bout of selection could have done the trick in concert. So the adaptations and lifestyle are old, but the Bajau people may date to the last 2,000 years, and selection within this population may be that recent.

A lot of the answer might be found in looking at the other sea nomad groups….

The maturation of the South Asian genetic landscape


The above is a stylized map from the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia. In broad strokes, it says some things that are very expected, and some things that are not so expected.

The abstract is long, but I’ll reproduce it in full:

The genetic formation of Central and South Asian populations has been unclear because of an absence of ancient DNA. To address this gap, we generated genome-wide data from 362 ancient individuals, including the first from eastern Iran, Turan (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), Bronze Age Kazakhstan, and South Asia. Our data reveal a complex set of genetic sources that ultimately combined to form the ancestry of South Asians today. We document a southward spread of genetic ancestry from the Eurasian Steppe, correlating with the archaeologically known expansion of pastoralist sites from the Steppe to Turan in the Middle Bronze Age (2300-1500 BCE). These Steppe communities mixed genetically with peoples of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) whom they encountered in Turan (primarily descendants of earlier agriculturalists of Iran), but there is no evidence that the main BMAC population contributed genetically to later South Asians. Instead, Steppe communities integrated farther south throughout the 2nd millennium BCE, and we show that they mixed with a more southern population that we document at multiple sites as outlier individuals exhibiting a distinctive mixture of ancestry related to Iranian agriculturalists and South Asian hunter-gathers. We call this group Indus Periphery because they were found at sites in cultural contact with the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) and along its northern fringe, and also because they were genetically similar to post-IVC groups in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. By co-analyzing ancient DNA and genomic data from diverse present-day South Asians, we show that Indus Periphery-related people are the single most important source of ancestry in South Asia — consistent with the idea that the Indus Periphery individuals are providing us with the first direct look at the ancestry of peoples of the IVC — and we develop a model for the formation of present-day South Asians in terms of the temporally and geographically proximate sources of Indus Periphery-related, Steppe, and local South Asian hunter-gatherer-related ancestry. Our results show how ancestry from the Steppe genetically linked Europe and South Asia in the Bronze Age, and identifies the populations that almost certainly were responsible for spreading Indo-European languages across much of Eurasia.

First Turk Empire

Though the abstract is focused on South Asia, the preprint actually has quite a bit about Inner Asia, because of the provenance of the samples. We often view the typical person in the past as a peasant in an agricultural society, and therefore relatively immobile over their lifetime. The story we like to tell ourselves is that non-elites in premodern societies, on the whole, had narrow horizons, delimited by their home village, or the neighboring network of villages.

But results from this work and others show that mobile populations where individuals spanned vast areas of Eurasia across their lifetimes, were not that uncommon for pastoralists. We know this historically, as empires such as that of the Turks and Mongols were defined by a ruling elite whose writ extended from eastern to western Eurasia. The Sintashta samples, which exhibit genetic heterogeneity, with some individuals very different from the norm in their settlement, is exactly what you’d expect from a social and political culture which was united in some fashion over huge distances.

As the sample sizes for ancient DNA have increased it seems rather clear that demographic dynamics that we see in later historical expansions of Inner Asian polities extends back to the Bronze Age. With expanding populations across the ecologically friendly landscape, the ancient proto-Indo-Europeans seem to have mixed with the local substrate wherever they went, just as Turks did later. As they moved west, they mixed with late Neolithic Europeans, as they went east, they mixed with Siberian populations, and as they conquered south they mixed with descendants of West Asian farmers.

One of the primary aspects that I think one needs to keep in mind is that one can’t just imagine that this was defined by simple diffusion dynamics. Historically the boundary between pastoralists and peasants could be fluid, but when political resistance collapses pastoralists have been able to use their military prowess to swarm across the lands of agriculturalists. In other words, centuries of gradual inter-demic gene flow might be interrupted by a rapid “pulse” admixture. There’s no reason that pre-literate polities couldn’t exist. The Inca were one such example, the homogeneity of the Uruk civilization in the 4th millennium BC is strongly suggestive of an imperial hegemony or paramountcy.

Another dynamic is that pastoralists are highly mobile, and so may leapfrog over territory which is unsuitable. Or, they may move so rapidly that there isn’t much mixing with populations in between point A and point B.

This is apparently the case with the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex. These people were mostly descended from people related to the eastern farmers of West Asia, those in modern day Iran. Some of their ancestry had affinities with Anatolian farmers, and there is some evidence even of Siberian admixture in this region. But there are three important takehomes of this preprint in relation to this area 1) the BMAC did not contribute much genetically to South Asia at all, 2) steppe ancestry, related to that of the Yamna culture of the Pontic region, only shows up in BMAC ~2000 3)  there is actually evidence of South Asian (Indus valley?) migration into the BMAC.

The fact that Yamna-like ancestry shows up in the BMAC region so late is a strong reason to suspect that Indo-Iranian peoples did not move to Iran and India until after 2000 BC. In earlier comments on this issue, I was rather vague about timing, because the Corded-Ware people show up in Europe before 2500 BC, and I was going along with the parsimonious idea that this was part of one single cultural and social revolution.

I was wrong. Going back to the Turkic analogy, there were multiple waves of migration and folk wandering by Turkic pastoralists. By different Turkic groups. One of the major ones occurred due to the rise of the Mongols, and the Mongols were not even Turks. The same seems to be true of Inner Eurasian Indo-European groups.

Moving on to South Asia, there are two primary constructs which come out of this preprint. “Indus Periphery” and “Ancient Ancestral South Indians.” I’ll call the former InPe and the latter is termed AASI. To some extent these complement and replace the earlier terms “Ancestral North Indian” and “Ancestral South Indian” (ANI and ASI). The AASI are the ancient hunter-gatherers of the Indian subcontinent. The authors suggested that divergence of this group from other eastern Eurasians occurred very early, that the division between the ancestors of the Papuans, Onge, and AASI was even polytomic (that basically separated very quickly without discernible structure).

The InPe samples are from eastern Iran and the BMAC. They’re unique in having AASI ancestry, at variable fractions (indicating contemporaneous admixture). They also resemble samples from Swat Valley which date to 1200 BC and later, with one major difference: the Swat Valley samples have steppe ancestry.

There are no samples from the Indus Valley proper, so the authors suggest that the InPe are reasonable proxies. Additionally, they assert that ASI can best be modeled as a mixture between InPe and AASI. In other words, there were two admixture events. Their Pulliyar samples are actually pretty good proxies for the resultant ASI, while the Kalash of Pakistan are good proxies for the ANI, who are presumably now modeled as a mixture of steppe populations with the InPe.

This resolves the enigmatic result that Priya Moorjani reported to me last year: less than 4,000 years ago “pure” ANI and ASI people existed. She was presumably going off admixture timing estimates. These results suggest that in some form ANI and ASI still exist, and the first admixture occurred with the creation of InPe.

Using a new method the authors contend that InPe emerged 4700-3000 BC. If this is true then the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was a compound of AASI and Iranian agriculturalists (sampled from the eastern end of the cline of admixture with Anatolians, that is, they had none of that ancestry). They also post the first arrival of agriculture to Mehrgarh by 2,000 years at the least. I suspect that it will turn out there were earlier admixtures, which are not being detected. For various ecological reasons the West Asian cultural complex was portable only to the northwest fringe of South Asia, and there it persisted for ~4,000 years. This served as a natural eastern limit for cultures which were migrating out of the West Asian zone, and a point where AASI hunter-gatherers constantly mixed into the local population.

As the IVC sites begin to get sampled in the future I predict that instead of a homogeneous transect of admixture over time and space we’ll see a lot of heterogeneity.

In the Swat samples, the authors see two correlated trends, an increase in steppe ancestry, and an increase in AASI ancestry. No doubt this dates to the “great admixture” which occurred between 2000 BC, and some time before 1000 AD (the Bengali admixture with East Asians dates to between 0 and 1000 AD, as does that of Brahmins who left the North Indian plain and mixed with local populations elsewhere).

Finally, the authors detect a skew toward steppe ancestry among some populations, in particular, Brahmins. The skew is in relation to Iranian farmer ancestry, the two being the primary constituents of ANI ancestry. In Who We Are and How We Got Here David Reich says some of the ANI admixture is much more recent than the rest, judging by tract length. And also going by the BMAC and Swat samples it seems that the time period for when Indo-Aryans arrived in South Asia has to be in the interval between 2000 BC and 1200 BC.

There’s another aspect of the preprint which allows for dating. The arrival of Austro-Asiatic people in South Asia probably has to postdate the expansion of the same group in Vietnam about 4,000 years ago (though not necessarily obviously). But the Munda Austro-Asiatic people of northeast India exhibit curious genetic patterns. They clearly have East Asian ancestry related to other Austro-Asiatic populations in Southeast Asia, but they have a lot less “West Eurasian” in their ANI/ASI mix. The authors resolve this by suggesting that the Munda arrived in South Asia when there was still heterogeneity among the ASI, and unadmixed AASI.

After 2000 BC the IVC went into decline. Various groups of Indo-Aryans were expanding and admixing. From the other end of the subcontinent arrived rice cultivators from Southeast Asia. At some point, they ran into an ASI population that had some Iranian admixture, but not as much as typical. All of this probably occurred in the period between 2000 BC and 1000 BC. I know that some researchers have argued that the Gangetic plain was inhabited by Munda speaking peoples before it was inhabited by Indo-Aryans. The main issue I’ve had with this is that modern Munda peoples are very genetically distinctive, and there’s no evidence of East Asian ancestry in most populations of the Gangetic plain (the main exceptions are those which have experienced Tibetan influence/contact).

So here is my interpretation of the genetic and historical evidence:

1) IVC emerges out of a matrix that was a synthesis of West Asian farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers. I would not be surprised if later genetic work recapitulates the findings in Europe of an initial period of separation, and then a “resurgence” of indigenous ancestry as the barriers between the two groups break.

2) The period between 2000 BC and 1000 BC is the beginning of the transformation of the South Asian genetic and ethnolinguistic landscape, with the intrusion of two different groups from different directions, Indo-Aryans to the west and Austro-Asiatics from the east. Austro-Asiatic rice culture was superior to western wheat culture because rice is more delicious than wheat, but the Indo-Aryans ultimately established cultural supremacy across South Asia by the Iron Age.

3) The situation in South India is more complicated and confused. The admixture of groups like Pulliyar from InPe and AASI into the classic ASI configuration seems to be more recent than 2000 BC (their low bound dates go as late as 400 BC). The admixture may have occurred in various places, not just in South India. The evidence from this paper suggests that the Andronovo/Sintashta cultural zone was characterized by some genetic heterogeneity due to variation in admixture with neighboring peoples, and the same could be said for the IVC then. I would not be surprised if northern IVC locations had more AASI than southern IVC, as the latter were more insulated from the east due to the Thar desert (the results are consistent with earlier work that suggest modern populations in the lower Indus basis have less Indo-Aryan and more Iranian, with less AASI).

4) We need to be careful about assuming that everything here is a linear combination of distinct and separable atomic units of cultural integrity and wholeness. What I mean is that though Brahmins and some other North Indian groups are enriched for steppe ancestry, it is not only their purview. Rather, it may be that these upper caste groups simply mixed less with the other populations with Iranian and AASI ancestry. The statistics in this paper do not detect enrichment of steppe ancestry in South Indian Brahmins. I believe this is simply an artifact of the reality that South Indian Brahmins mixed with Iranian-enriched elites, like Reddys, when they emigrated to the south.

Though the model outlined in the preprint is much more complicated than a simple ANI/ASI mix, it still simplifies the demographic histories of many populations. For example, own survey of the data suggests that Brahmins who left the Indo-Gangetic plain mixed with local elites wherever they went (Bengali Brahmins have East Asian ancestry, just as South Indian Brahmins have more Iranian-like ancestry).

5) Language is important but is not determinative. R1a1a-Z93 arrived in South Asia relatively late with groups from the steppe. Its frequency is highest in the northwest, and among upper castes. That is, it is correlated in a coarse manner to steppe ancestry. But R1a1a-Z93 is pervasive throughout South Asia irrespective of caste and region. Even in Dravidian speaking southern populations, some groups have quite a bit of R1a1a-Z93.

The analogy that presents itself here is Southern Europe, where some groups with high frequencies of R1b, such as the Basques and Sardinians, are clearly descended in the main from pre-steppe populations. What this suggests is that a broad social-culture prestige network mediated by males extended itself into regions where its cultural hegemony was not assured. Additionally, the autosomal genetic impact was modest, even if privileges given to particular male lineages allowed them to sweep other groups out of the gene pool.

Tamil history precipitates out only a little later than that of North Indian Indo-Aryan civilization. I suspect that this is not a coincidence, that South Asia after the collapse of the IVC and the arrival of the Indo-Aryans and Mundas, could be thought of as a brought mixing cauldron genetically and culturally. In many regions, Dravidian languages persisted in the face of the expansive Indo-Aryan, but there was a cultural influence, likely reciprocal. This is why once Indian civilization reemerged its coherent unity set against peoples to the west and east was not strange despite the linguistic gap between the north and the south.

The only exception here might be the Munda. As I have said, R1a1a-Z93 is pervasive. But it is nearly unfound among the Munda, who tend to carry relatively exotic Southeast Asian Y lineages such as O. I believe that the Munda were in some way losers in a cultural conflict, but they maintained themselves in the hills above the Gangetic plain.

Finally, two reflections, one navel-gazing, one big picture. Genome bloggers in the years around 2010 actually anticipated many of these results. There’s some hindsight bias here because you remember the times you are right and not the times you were wrong. We were right that there was more than one ANI pulse. Additionally, we were looking at the ratio between “Eastern European” and “West Asian” ancestry years ago and noticing the skewed patterns, with North Indian Brahmins biased toward the former and South Indian elite non-Brahmins skewed toward the latter. Chaubey 2010 suggested to us that something was different about the Munda not only in their East Asian ancestry but in their ANI/ASI ancestry. They just didn’t seem to have any Indo-European ancestry (steppe), and a lot of ASI. Over the past few years I’ve been suggesting that Dravidian languages were not primal to South India, but the product of a recent expansion (though part of this is due to scientific publications).

The truth was out there. It just took ancient DNA and the analytic chops of the Reich group and their collaborators to prune the tree of possibilities so that we could zero in on a few precise and likely models.

In the general, I wonder about the role of clines, diffusions, and pulses. The models that the foremost practitioners of the science of ancient DNA utilize tend to assume pulse admixtures, rather than isolation-by-distance gene flow. This isn’t always a crazy assumption. But there was a discussion in the paper of a west-east admixture cline between Anatolian farmers and Iranian farmers. Is this cline due to admixture, or was it always there? A paper from a few years ago implied that early farmers were highly structured, structure that broke down later.

Also, the polytomy at the base of the eastern Eurasian human family tree, where all the major lineages diverge rapidly from each other, makes me wonder about gene flow vs. admixture. It seems possible that the polytomy may mask a phylogenetic tree topology which had gradually bifurcating nodes, if periodically a single daughter population replaced all its sister lineages in a local geographic zone. Much of history in human meta-populations may be characterized by isolation-by-distance and gene flow, erased by the extinction of most lineages and expansion of a favored lineage.