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.

The logic of human destiny was inevitable 1 million years ago

Robert Wright’s best book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, was published nearly 20 years ago. At the time I was moderately skeptical of his thesis. It was too teleological for my tastes. And, it does pander to a bias in human psychology whereby we look to find meaning in the universe.

But this is 2017, and I have somewhat different views.

In the year 2000 I broadly accepted the thesis outlined a few years later in The Dawn of Human Culture. That our species, our humanity, evolved and emerged in rapid sequence, likely due to biological changes of a radical kind, ~50,000 years ago. This is the thesis of the “great leap forward” of behavioral modernity.

Today I have come closer to models proposed by Michael Tomasello in The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition and Terrence Deacon in The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. Rather than a punctuated event, an instance in geological time, humanity as we understand it was a gradual process, driven by general dynamics and evolutionary feedback loops.

The conceit at the heart of Robert J. Sawyer’s often overly preachy Neanderthal Parallax series, that if our own lineage went extinct but theirs did not they would have created a technological civilization, is I think in the main correct. It may not be entirely coincidental that the hyper-drive cultural flexibility of African modern humans evolved in African modern humans first. There may have been sufficient biological differences to enable this to be likely. But I believe that if African modern humans were removed from the picture Neanderthals would have “caught up” and been positioned to begin the trajectory we find ourselves in during the current Holocene inter-glacial.

Luke Jostins’ figure showing across board encephalization

The data indicate that all human lineages were subject to increased encephalization. That process trailed off ~200,000 years ago, but it illustrates the general evolutionary pressures, ratchets, or evolutionary “logic”, that applied to all of them. Overall there were some general trends in the hominin lineage that began to characterized us about a million years ago. We pushed into new territory. Our rate of cultural change seems to gradually increased across our whole range.

One of the major holy grails I see now and then in human evolutionary genetics is to find “the gene that made us human.” The scramble is definitely on now that more and more whole genome sequences from ancient hominins are coming online. But I don’t think there will be such gene ever found. There isn’t “a gene,” but a broad set of genes which were gradually selected upon in the process of making us human.

In the lingo, it wasn’t just a hard sweep from a de novo mutation. It was as much, or even more, soft sweeps from standing variation.