Beyond “Out of Africa” and multiregionalism: a new synthesis?

For several decades before the present era there have been debates between proponents of the recent African origin of modern humans, and the multiregionalist model. Though molecular methods in a genetic framework have come of the fore of late these were originally paleontological theories, with Chris Stringer and Milford Wolpoff being the two most prominent public exponents of the respective paradigms.

Oftentimes the debate got quite heated. If you read books from the 1990s, when multiregionalism in particular was on the defensive, there were arguments that the recent out of Africa model was more inspirational in regards to our common humanity. As a riposte the multiregionalists asserted that those suggesting recent African origins with total replacement was saying that our species came into being through genocide.

Though some had long warned against this, the dominant perception outside of population genetics was that results such the “mitochondrial Eve” had given strong support to the recent African origin of modern humans, to the exclusion of other ancestry. 2002’s Dawn of Human Culture took it for granted that the recent African origin of modern humans to the total exclusion of other hominin lineages was established fact.

In 2008 I went to a talk where Svante Paabo presented some recent Neanderthal ancient mtDNA work. It was rather ho-hum, as Paabo showed that the Neanderthal lineages were highly diverged from modern ones, and did not leave any descendants. Though of course most modern human lineages did not leave any descendants from that period, Paabo took this evidence supporting the proposition that Neanderthals did not contribute to the modern human gene pool.

When his lab reported autosomal Neanderthal admixture in 2010, it was after initial skepticism and shock internally. I know Milford Wolpoff felt vindicated, while Chris Stringer began to emphasize that the recent African origin of modern humanity also was defined by regional assimilation of other lineages. The data have ultimately converged to a position somewhere between the extreme models of total replacement or balanced and symmetrical gene flow.

This is not surprising. Extreme positions are often rhetorically useful and popular when there’s no data. But reality does not usually conform to our prejudices, so ultimately one has to come down at some point.

The data for non-Africans is rather unequivocal. The vast majority of (>90%) of the ancestry of non-Africans seems to go back to a small number of common ancestors ~60,000 years ago. Perhaps in the range of ~1,000 individuals. These individuals seem to be a node within a phylogenetic tree where all the other branches are occupied by African populations. Between this period and ~15,000 years ago these non-Africans underwent a massive range expansion, until modern humans were present on all continents except Antarctica. Additionally, after the Holocene some of these non-African groups also experienced huge population growth due to intensive agricultural practice.

To give a sense of what I’m getting at, the bottleneck and common ancestry of non-Africans goes back ~60,000 years, but the shared ancestry of Khoisan peoples and non-Khoisan peoples goes back ~150,000-200,000 years. A major lacunae of the current discussion is that often the dynamics which characterize non-Africans are assumed to be applicable to Africans. But they are not.

A 2014 paper illustrates one major difference by inferring effective population from whole genomes: African populations have not gone through the major bottleneck which is imprinted on the genomes of all non-African populations. The Khoisan peoples, the most famous of which are the Bushmen of the Kalahari, have the largest long term effective populations of any human group. The Yoruba people of Nigeria have a history where they were subject to some population decline, but not to the same extent as non-Africans.

What do we take away from this?

One thing is that we have to consider that the assimilationist model which seems to be necessary for non-Africans, also applies to Africans. For years some geneticists have been arguing that some proportion of African ancestry as well is derived from lineages outside of the main line leading up to anatomically modern humans. Without the smoking gun of ancient genomes this will probably remain a speculative hypothesis. I hope that Lee Berger’s recent assertion that they’ve now dated Homo naledi to ~250,000 years before the present may offer up the possibility that ancient DNA will help resolve the question of African archaic admixture (i.e., if naledi is related to the “ghost population”?).

The second dynamic is that the bottleneck-then-range-expansion which is so important in defining the recent prehistory of non-Africans is not as relevant to Africans during the Pleistocene. The very deep split dates being inferred from whole genome analysis of African populations makes me wonder if multiregional evolution is actually much more important within Africa in the development of modern humans in the last few hundred thousand years. Basically, the deep split dates may highlight that there was recurrent gene flow over hundreds of thousands of years between different closely related hominin populations in Africa.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem entirely surprising that the “Out of Africa” model does not quite apply within Africa.

Addendum: Over the past ~5,000 years we have seen the massive expansion of agricultural populations within the continent. The “deep structure” therefore may have been erased to a great extent, with Pygmies, Khoisan, and Hadza, being the tip of the iceberg in terms of the genetic variation which had characterized the Africa during the Pleistocene.

One thought on “Beyond “Out of Africa” and multiregionalism: a new synthesis?

  1. Razib, very interesting article, thanks for writing it. I found your blog a few weeks ago and have read a lot of your past articles and looked up many papers you reference. Excellent work.

    A question on your recommended books – and being a history fan I have already bought The Fall of Rome and Barzun’s book because they both sounded fascinating – Population Genetics is 2007, right? Won’t a more recent book be more valuable? (It’s expensive and I’m running a startup company).

    I’ve just ordered the latest edition of Behavioral Genetics by Plomin and others, decided it worth spending the money after reading a number of Plomin’s papers and also the book “Predisposed” on heritability of political views (recommended).

    So in trying to learn the field, a textbook is always well worth the money. But the field is moving fast. Won’t a Population Genetics textbook from the last 2 years (say an updated edition) be much more valuable? I just watched the 2016 “Population Genetics” video by Lynn Jorde from the 1000 Genomes project..

    [fwiw, pop-gen hasn’t really advanced since 2007; arguably since 1987. it’s just genomics, which is a different thing -razib]

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