Living humans are anatomically the most diverse animals of a single species on the planet. The differences extend from limb bones to skull characteristics, including the bony underpinnings of our faces. That shows up plainly in any crowded market, whether that be in Addis Ababa, Bombay or Birmingham. Yet our genetic make up is extremely narrow, and chimps from separate troupes in West African jungle show greater diversity than that of humans across the world. When physical anthropologists’ only tool was empirical comparisons between the physiognomies of people from different populations, their findings helped serve a political agenda. Statistical groupings drawn from that diversity slaked racists’ thirst for “proof” of their ethnic group’s wished-for “superiority”. Such furtive longings are as alive today as they ever were in the 1930s: a mischief based on rubbished pseudoscience and ignorance. We are physically diverse, but genetically distinguishable only by the most exquisitely precise analyses of DNA and other heritable material.
The minute genetic differences between peoples, like those more obviously separating the languages that they speak, result from migrations across the planet that took place before about 10 thousand years ago. The migrants lived as hunter-gatherers under the climatically adverse condition of the last ice age. Before the invention in widely separate centres of animal husbandry and agriculture that allowed human populations to explode – no earlier than 10 thousand years ago – our forebears’ total numbers would have barely exceeded the attendance on a Saturday afternoon at English Premier League soccer matches. Tiny population densities, coupled with groups living in isolation and the random effect of mutations, with time create genetic differences between these groups, and so too for language and culture. The narrowness of modern peoples’ genetic diversity points strongly to their last common ancestor living not so long ago in geological terms. Whereas the earliest anatomical evidence for modern humans – a skull from Ethiopia with the chin that sets us apart from other extinct human species – is 450 thousand years old, differences in DNA from mitochondria indicate that divergence of the female half of our make up was about 140 thousand years ago. Evidence from living men’s Y chromosomes (see November 2000 Earth Pages Eve never met Adam) suggests an even more recent stem, about 70 thousand years ago. Both analyses point strongly to Africa for the focus of later divergence, that no other lines of descent survived to the present, and that no DNA from different groups, such as Neanderthals or Homo erectus, was involved in living peoples’ ancestors since 140 thousand years ago. These observations form the core of the “Out of Africa” hypothesis.
There are, however, physical anthropologists who still set great store by statistical analysis of anatomical features, specifically that of skulls from extant humans and fossil ones. They hold a view that it is possible that modern human’s physical diversity arose by evolution from much older populations of earlier migrants to different regions from Africa – the “Multi-regional” hypothesis explored by Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan. In the case of Asian and Australasians that might have been from H. erectus that arrived in China as long ago as 1.8 million years back – recent dating of sediments in which erects’ remains have been found in Indonesia shows that they survived until as recently as 20 thousand years ago. Alternatively it could have been from more advanced humans who arrived in Asia less than half a million years ago; the Mapas whose remains resemble those of Neanderthals. For Europe, the putative ancestors would be Neanderthals, who arrived there at least 350 thousand years ago. Africans, say the multi-regionalists, evolved continuously from the earliest tool-using humans since 2.5 million years ago.
Wolpoff’s group has used the same statistical technique employed in DNA studies to analyse skull morphologies from 25 individual modern humans from the fossil records of Europe and Australia, and compared the results with those for well-accepted, earlier humans and modern ones from Africa. They claim (Wolpoff, M.H. et al. 2001. Modern human ancestry at the peripheries: a test of the replacement theory. Science, v. 291, p. 293-297) a better statistical fit between data for pairings of modern-human and earlier inhabitants of Australia and Indonesia, and of Europe than between modern-human remains from different regions. “Out of Africa” proponents question the validity of the method, particularly selection of parameters – facial characters are omitted – and actual fossils. Statistics is always a problem in studying human fossils, because they are so rare and widely separated in time – the study by Wolpoff’s group used material ranging from 60- to 14 thousand years old, and a total of only 25 specimens.
Even rarer are data for genetic material separated from fossils. Three years ago, palaeoanthropologists at the Max Planck Institute in Munich reported the first partial DNA sequence from Neanderthal remains, later confirmed by another extraction. They showed how unlikely it is that conjugation of Neanderthals and contemporary modern humans resulted in any signature surviving in the genes of living people. Likewise, the data seemed to rule out any relatedness between the two groups since possibly several hundred million years ago; bad news for the multi-regionalists. Astonishingly, scientists at the Australian National University have recovered useful DNA from 10 fossil humans between that range from 2 to 60 thousand years old. The oldest not only represents the earliest Australian yet found, but turned out to be very different from that of later inhabitants (Adcock, G.L. et al. 2001. Mitochondrial DNA sequences in ancient Australians: Implications for modern human origins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 98, p. 537-542). One intriguing aspect is that a sequence in the mitochondrial DNA of “Mungo Man” exists as a remnant “insert” in modern DNA from chromosome 11, long suspected of being old mtDNA that has transferred to that in the cell nucleus.
Although no-one claims “Mungo Man” was an ancestor of living native Australians, there is many a spin that can be placed on the discovery. The spanner in the works is that he is physically modern, beyond a shadow of doubt for comparative anatomists, but genetically archaic. One possibility, espoused by the multi-regionalists, is that he evolved from pre-modern human migrants into Asia, either H. erectus or Mapas. But that runs against the discovery of morphologically erect fossils from Indonesia that are much younger. Perhaps he descended from interbreeding between early modern human migrants with earlier Asians, his DNA failing to be passed on to the present. It is also possible that 60 thousand years ago, humans had a much greater range of genetic diversity, and that was filtered to today’s narrowness by a “bottleneck” due either to a disastrous fall in global population or to a cultural innovation that favoured only those who used it in the lottery of evolutionary fitness. Though grist to the multi-regionalist mill, one DNA datum does not knock the “Out of Africa” hypothesis from its basis on thousands of results from living people. Humans in one shape or other trekked from Africa to Asia at least three times since 1.8 million years ago, surviving in the case of the erects until quite recently. It is what tool-equipped, socially conscious beings do, because they are sheltered from environmental pressures by what they do as much as by who they are. That also surely means that all manner of changes in their genes and their morphology, which in mere beasts might snuff them out, can survive to confound the pure anatomist and the molecular biologist. As the demise of the Neanderthals shows, when cultures are pitted in environments that offer limited resources, one gives way to another better suited. Sadly, lifestyles and outlook, that we know to have driven human history for 6 000 years or so, leave little fossil record save stone tools and art, often inexplicable. Accepting what makes humans unique has somehow to figure in all the empiricism around which centre current ideas on our origins.
(See also: Pennisi, E. 2001. Skull study targets Africa-only origins. Science, v. 291, p.231. Dayton, L. 2001. The man from down under. New Scientist, 13 January 2001 issue, p. 6. Holden, C. 2001. Oldest human DNA reveals Aussie oddity. Science, v. 291, p. 230-231)