Genetic Insights into Prehistoric Human Dispersal

Joanna L. Mountain
Senior Director of Research, 23andMe, Inc, Mountain View, CA, and Consulting Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropological Sciences, Stanford University

The common ancestry of our species dates back to a relatively recent point in time. Although there are hints that a fraction of our gene pool traces back to populations living outside of Africa for hundreds of thousands of years, most of our gene pool can be traced back to Africa, on the order of 70-100 thousand years ago. Since that time our species has dispersed throughout much of the earth. Genetic data suggest that the peoples of Eurasia have been migratory over the last 40,000 years, leading to high levels of interaction among groups. Populations in other regions, however, may have been more isolated. Our research group has focused on the genetic diversity of populations within Sub-Saharan Africa. Human population history within Africa remains poorly characterized, despite the fact that anatomically modern humans have occupied this continent longer than any other. One challenge we face is detecting events prior to the relatively recent dispersal of Bantu-speaking peoples. We have taken on that challenge by developing a novel statistical approach that allows one to take into account such recent dispersal. Our genetic data reveal a remarkable level of isolation of populations in Sub-Saharan Africa, consistent with the high level of linguistic diversity in the region. Dispersal, however, is the story of the last few thousand years in Africa, as it is throughout much of the world.

Suggested article:
Mellars, P (2006) Going east: New genetic and archaeological perspectives on the Modern Human Colonization of Eurasia, Science, 313:796.

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