Last common paternal and maternal ancestors closer in time

One of the oddities of using human genetic material passed down the male (from Y chromosomes) and female lines (from mitochondria) to assess when fully modern humans originated is that they have hitherto given widely different dates: 50 to 115 ka and 150 to 240 ka respectively. Twice to three-times the age for a putative ancestral ‘mother’ compared with such a ‘father’ for humanity raised all kinds of problematic issues for palaeoanthropology, such as a possibly greater ‘turnover’ of lines of descent among males perhaps due to riskier lifestyles. Y-chromosome data  limited speculation on the timing of human colonisation outside of Africa to a maximum of 60 ka, even though there is fossil and archaeological evidence for a much earlier presence in the Levant and India.  The difference also questions the validity of molecular-clock approaches to evolutionary matters. Two new studies have lessened the phylogenetic  strains.

One examines Y chromosomes in 69 males from nine diverse populations from Africa, Eurasia and Central America (Poznik, G.D.  and 10 others 2013. Sequencing Y chromosomes resolves discrepancy in time to common ancestors of males versus females. Science, v. 341, p. 562-565). The US-French team applied sophisticated statistics as well as the elements of a molecular clock approach to both Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, discovering in the process a hitherto unresolved feature in the African part of the male ‘tree’. The outcome is a significant revision of both male and female paths of descent: 120 to 156 ka and 99 to 148 ka to the last common ancestor in both lines. The upper limit is somewhat lower than the age of fossil evidence for the earliest anatomically modern humans.

The second study zeros-in on the European story, by examining the Y-chromosome data of 1200 men from Sardinia (Francalacci, P. and 38 others. Low-pass DNA sequencing of 1200 Sardinians reconstructs European Y-chromosome phylogeny. Science, v. 341, p. 565-569) calibrated to some extent by the date when Sardinia was first colonised (7.7 ka). It too revealed new detail that enabled the Italian-US-Spanish team to refine the time when features of Sardinian Y-chromosome DNA would coalesce with those from the rest of the world. In this case the date for a last common paternal ancestor goes back to between 180 to 200 ka, more similar to the old dates for ‘African Eve’ and the earliest modern human fossils than to either that for male or female lines arrived at by Posnik et al. (2013), which are significantly younger.

Map of early migrations of modern humans

Map of early migrations of modern humans based on Y chromsome data (credit: Wikipedia)

Equally interesting are the comments on both papers in the Perspectives section of the issue of science in which they appear (Cann, R.L. 2013. Y weigh in again on modern humans. Science, v. 341, p. 465-7).Rebecca Cann of the University of Hawaii Manoa considers the two sets of results from Y-chromosomes potentially capable of refining models for the migration times of modern humans out of Africa and their interactions with the archaic populations that they eventually displaced from Europe and central and southern Asia (Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo erectus respectively). She believes that will include signs of earlier excursions that the generally accepted diaspora between roughly 60 and 50 ka seemingly constrained by the previous 50 to 115 ka estimate for the last common paternal ancestor. That would help explain the presence of modern humans in India at the time of the Toba eruption (71 ka).


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