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Shining a Light on our Roots

Ancestry. Online access to millions of genealogical records and the affordability and accuracy of DNA testing has encouraged many of us to investigate our roots and build family trees more comprehensive than ever possible before. Using these tools, we gain insight into our heritage and ethnicity, discovering more about ourselves and our distant relatives in the process.

That same goal, a desire to learn more about the most ancient ancestors of all of mankind, recently prompted three separate teams of genetic biologists to use the very latest and most sophisticated DNA sequencing techniques to analyze the DNA of a large group of volunteers from a very unique pool of previously untested individuals.

Previous analysis of the DNA of people of European and Asian extraction confirmed anthropologic evidence that the human race arose from East Africa approximately 200,000 years ago. But how did we come to populate the rest of the world? When and in what fashion did we migrate out of our first homeland? Did multiple waves of migrants over thousands of years bring our ancestors to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and the Americas? Quite a few scientists have proposed just such a migratory pattern and researchers, seeking evidence, have unearthed many ancient artifacts from not only our own species but also from other, more ancient hominin species supporting the theory of multiple out-of-Africa migrations. But other genetic and physical anthropologists have wondered if most of present-day humanity actually originated from a single, more recent migration that took place less than 80,000 years ago.

To gather evidence to support or refute that theory, these three scientific teams worked with voices previously unheard from. The indigenous peoples of the world—Basques from Northern Spain, Cree from North America, Mayans from South America, Pygmies from Africa, and people of the Aboriginal race of Australia.

The three unconnected investigations made numerous discoveries in their analyses of the DNA from the nearly 800 people who participated, including some stunning revelations. As Rachel Feltman of the Washington Post reports, “one of the studies, led by Eske Willerley of Cambridge University, provides the most in-depth genomic analysis of native Australians ever published,” revealing that the “Aboriginal people [of Australia] appear to be the oldest living civilization on the planet outside of Africa.” The study suggests that the ancestors of this ancient community left Africa as long as 72,000 years ago and migrated across southern Eurasia before settling in Australia approximately 50,000 years ago.

Even though some minor discrepancies exist among the three studies—certain to fuel further, even more in-depth investigations in the future—all agree on a central conclusion: “that all non-Africans today trace their ancestry to a single population emerging from Africa between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago.”

These ancestors of ours all left Africa during this 30,000-year period. Some migrated east, their travels taking them as far as Australia. Some headed west to populate the Iberian peninsula and other regions of modern-day Europe. Others migrated to the northeast, settling in vast areas of Asia. Some of these migrants from north-eastern Asia crossed the Beringian subcontinent or canoed along the Pacific coast before taking up residence and establishing new civilizations on the North and South American continents.

Spaniards and Latvians. Ethiopians and Poles. Aleut and Egyptian. Siberian and Australian. Norwegian and Incan. Tall and short. Of different colors. Many peoples. A common ancestry. One human race.

Abstracts and the full text of the articles in which the studies outlined above have been published appear in the 22 September issue of Nature, which you can find here.

You can also read more about these studies and their discoveries in the following articles:

Aboriginal DNA Points to an Earlier Human Exodus from Africa
A Single Migration From Africa Populated the World, Studies Find
Humanity Left Africa in One Big Surge
Jury Out on ‘Out of Africa’ Migrations
Host of New Studies Reveal Fascinating Facts about Aboriginal Australian Roots
DNA Hints at Earlier Human Exodus from Africa
The Most Detailed Look Yet at How Early Humans Left Africa
Out of Africa Just Once? DNA Offers Fresh Look at Humanity’s Family Roots
The Oldest Continuous Society Began More than 50,000 Years Ago