From the comments:
Something that confused me very early on in the book- the San are shown branching off from the rest of humanity prior to Mitochondrial Eve. How can Eve be a common ancestor in this case? Admixture?
The commenter is talking about an early portion of Who We Are and How We Got Here. Someone who reads a book like that is “in the know,” and this is a reasonable question. But it points to a bigger issue that’s going to crop up with the complexificaiton of the origin of anatomically modern humanity over the last few years, and proceeding forward.
An upside of the very-recent-out-of-Africa model, where all modern humans descended exclusively from a group of East Africans who lived ~50,000 years ago, is that it was very simple. So simple that you could write the model out on a postcard.
The new model benefits from being correct and making humans less sui generis (though perhaps that is a bug rather than a feature to some?), but it also forces more thought and complexity on the lay audience.
Calibration on the coalescence of the last common ancestor of all mitochondrial DNA lineages for humans has changed several times, the last estimates are for a time to last common ancestor for all mtDNA lineages being around 100 to 200 thousand years ago. This is curious in light of the fact that both fossils and genomics are starting to suggest that anatomically modern humans emerged in their current form 200 to 400 thousand years ago.
The shallower coalescence isn’t that surprising. Y and mtDNA both have lower effective population sizes and so higher turnover rates. These high turnover rates mean the extinction of other lineages. As most of you know, the extinction of these mtDNA lineages does not mean that the genetic material of other women alive at the same time as “mtDNA Eve” is not present in modern humans (though who knows what it means to say there’s distinctive genetic material left after all these generations with recombination). Eve was always simply a personification of the coalescence of the mtDNA genealogy. Both the Y and mtDNA phylogenies and coalescence were useful in their time. They pointed to the likely important role of Africa in the origin of modern humans, and the relatively recent time depth of our species. But their coalescence at a specific time was somewhat random around a certain expected value. This is why it was not surprising at all that “Y chromosomal Adam” and “mtDNA Eve” lived at different times (there is some evidence that the Y chromosome has had a lower long-term effective population size).
The above question is inspired by the fact that San Bushmen seem to diverge earlier in their total genome than in their mtDNA. There’s always been a distinction in the literature between demographic divergence between two populations, and the divergence of their genetic genealogies. Oftentimes daughter populations share genetic variation that dates back to before their separation. But sometimes, you have this situation where it seems that the starting point of genetic variation post-dates the divergence between population.
What’s the explanation? I think the simplest one is admixture and reciprocal gene flow, as implied by the commenter. In fact, Pontus Skoglund’s latest African ancient DNA paper implies that there was some sort of isolation-by-distance cline in the eastern part of the continent, from modern Ethiopia far to the south.
And, it may also turn out that the San Bushmen themselves are an admixture between two very different populations, one more like other eastern Africans, and one basal to this clade. If so, then it may be that their divergence estimate is a compound, and the most divergent mtDNA lineages come from the eastern African population that mixed with the more basal population.
The bigger answer is that we really need to move beyond the “mitochondrial Eve” story as being central. It had its time and played its role, but we can move beyond it. Otherwise, the public will be in for a big surprise as ancient DNA starts to uncover the story of a whole antediluvian world within Africa of anatomically modern humans that flourished for hundreds of thousands of years before a small branch left to populate the rest of the world ~50,000 years ago.