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18 - The African origin of recent humanity

from Part III - Modern human origins: patterns and processes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2012

Sally C. Reynolds
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Andrew Gallagher
University of Johannesburg
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It is broadly agreed that all recent/living human populations ultimately descend from Africans. In this chapter we examine new anatomical and genetic evidence that addresses one way this could be the case, a unique recent African origin for living humanity (meaning that all living humans descend from recent Africans and only descend from recent Africans, by species replacement). The male cranium from Herto (BOU-VP-16/1) is useful for examining this issue. Its description (White et al., 2003) raised questions about both the origin of recent humans and the fate of the Neandertals. Together, these two questions address the pattern of recent population evolution because if the ancestry of recent populations is uniquely African, Neandertals can have played no significant role in their evolution. The hypothesis we examine here is whether Neandertals were the end point of a species-lineage that was distinct from a different African species-lineage, including Herto, leading to recent humans. We examine the possibility of unique African origins by assuming this hypothesis is correct, and testing for the presence of evidence addressing its consequences. Specimens on a distinct Neandertal species-lineage are expected to be more different from Herto than they are from the common ancestors of Herto and Neandertals because there is more genetic distance from Herto to the Neandertals than there is from either Herto or the Neandertals to their common ancestor. We quantify the similarity of the large Herto male to 12 other mostly or fully complete Middle and Late Pleistocene male crania from Africa and other regions of the world, to test for this pattern of similarity. We also examine whether similarities between Herto and other Pleistocene Africans reveal a distinct African palaeo-deme.1 We show that comparisons of other crania to Herto indicate that the penecontemporary Europeans are not evolving in a different direction than the Africans. This result is supported by direct evidence of interbreeding between members of this Herto-descendent palaeo-deme and Neandertals, found in the analysis of Neandertal nuclear DNA. There is demonstrable, significant influence of the Neandertal genome on human genetic variation today (Green et al., 2010; Yotova et al., 2011). The Neandertal influence involves genes that evolved in Neandertals and other archaic populations and spread through non-African populations under selection. These data refute the hypothesis of a Neandertal species-lineage and support the interpretation of an African palaeo-deme in the Pleistocene that is one of the ancestors of living humans; hence, the African origin of recent humanity is one of several sources. The African palaeo-deme is not a species-lineage, and Neandertals are also among the ancestors of living Europeans and other non-African populations. Their influence is such that our ancestors would not have become modern without them.

The claim may be advanced that in the Afro-Asian land-mass, the true placement of the Garden of Eden, in the sense of the cradle of recent humanity, was in Africa, but it is far more likely to have been in ancient, 1 mya Africa, than in recent, 200,000 year-old Africa.

(Tobias, 1995: 164)

African Genesis
Perspectives on Hominin Evolution
, pp. 347 - 364
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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