The erectus within?

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2012 4:45 pm

The Pith: More caveman admixture in modern humans, especially Melanesians!

A new paper on archaic adaptive introgression among Melanesians has been discussed elsewhere. But I think it is worth reviewing, because it’s probably a foretaste of what’s to come. Researchers are combing through the human genome, as more and more genomes come on line, in the search of weird and unexpected variation. The paper is in Molecular Biology and Evolution, and is titled Global genetic variation at OAS1 provides evidence of archaic admixture in Melanesian populations (why is it that this journal doesn’t even allow supplemental information to be free to the public?). The two primary figures from this paper do a good job of illustrating the main result.

The first figure is a phylogenetic tree of haplotypes at the OAS1 locus, with pie charts showing the proportion of individuals from a set of populations which contribute to the total number for that haplotye. So you see above that the “deep lineage” is relatively distant from a cluster of other haplotypes (as measured by mutational differences which are proportional to depth of common ancestry), and, that deep linage is exclusively found in Papuans in this set. The second figure shows the frequency of the deep lineage haplotype over a larger set of populations. I cut off the section which shows that Africans are at zero percent. The haplotype is found almost exclusively in Melanesian populations, except for the fact out of over 200 South Asians they sampled, 3 of them carried it (2 Pakistanis, 1 Sri Lankan). There is aspect though not evident in the figures above, but which is clear in the abstract that you need to know:

Recent analysis of DNA extracted from two Eurasian forms of archaic human show that more genetic variants are shared with humans currently living in Eurasia than with anatomically modern humans in sub-Saharan Africa. While these genome-wide average measures of genetic similarity are consistent with the hypothesis of archaic admixture in Eurasia, analyses of individual loci exhibiting the signal of archaic introgression are needed to test alternative hypotheses and investigate the admixture process. Here, we provide a detailed sequence analysis of the innate immune gene, OAS1, a locus with a divergent Melanesian haplotype that is very similar to the Denisova sequence from the Altai region of Siberia. We re-sequenced a 7 kb region encompassing the OAS1gene in 88 individuals from 6 Old World populations (San, Biaka, Mandenka, French Basque, Han Chinese, and Papua New Guineans) and discovered previously unknown and ancient genetic variation. The 5′ region of this gene has unusual patterns of diversity, including 1) higher levels of nucleotide diversity in Papuans than in sub-Saharan Africans, 2) very deep ancestry with an estimated time to the most recent common ancestor of >3 million years, and 3) a basal branching pattern with Papuan individuals on either side of the rooted network. A global geographic survey of >1500 individuals showed that the divergent Papuan haplotype is nearly restricted to populations from eastern Indonesia and Melanesia. Polymorphic sites within this haplotype are shared with the draft Denisova genome over a span of ∼90 kb and are associated with an extended block of linkage disequilibrium, supporting the hypothesis that this haplotype introgressed from an archaic source that likely lived in Eurasia.

There there is “more genetic diversity within Africa” is a cliche rooted in reality. But, this is not true at all genes. For example, at MC1R Africans have less genetic diversity than Europeans. Why? MC1R is implicated in pigmentation, and this locus is subject to strong functional constraint at low latitudes. In other words, there is more at work than just demographic history. When you see more diversity at a locus outside of Africa than within there is a strong suspicion that natural selection or admixture may be at play, because your null expectation is that the dominant “Out of Africa” event will imply more Africa diversity or modern humans. So at OSA1 you have a genetic variation which is very diverse, and very divergent, from the modal human variant. When you take away the deep lineage you also see a pattern which is constant with genome wide expectations. Africans are distributed across the unrooted tree, while non-Africans seem to be nested within a subset of nodes.

But if this was published in 2008 it might not be as notable, because the human genome is big, and there are going to be random patterns here and there. This might have been dismissed. The key is that the authors matched this divergent haplotype to the variant found in the draft Denisovan genome. Naturally it’s going to be harder to dismiss as a statistical fluke when you actually have concrete evidence in this form that the ancient lineage was shared with an archaic hominin group.

There are two scientific points that jump out at me. First, the authors don’t discuss adaptation or selection in very much detail (except to dismiss balancing selection). But if this is due to archaic admixture its fraction in Melanesians is far higher than the genome wide average. Again, some loci will naturally deviate from expected values, but those that do are excellent candidates for being targets of adaptation. And, this gene has a clear functional role related to immune response. Second, the presence of this haplotype in South Asians is strongly suggestive of the location of the admixture event between archaic humans and the ancestors of modern Melanesians. This sort of information needs to be synthesized with the two papers last fall that came out on Australian evolutionary genomics.  One of the interesting aspects of the Denisovan admixture analyses is that it doesn’t seem that any South Asian group, including Andaman Islanders, exhibit it. And yet a few South Asians here carry a haplotype similar to the Denisovan variant. Interestingly, the authors present a rather unbelievable large value for the common ancestor between the deep lineage and other modern haplotypes, ~3 million years, which is an order of magnitude more than the divergence of Denisovans from modern humans.

How to resolve this confused situation? In the conclusion they point to the possibility that this haplotype may have introgressed into both the Denisovans and modern humans from H. erectus! The most recent genomics on Melanesians implies that their own history is relatively complex. On the one hand they may be some of the earliest distinct migrants out of Africa, and secondarily, they themselves may be successive compounds between those early migrants, archaic humans, and a second wave of Eurasians. All that being said, I think there is some hope in the combination of full genome sequencing of modern populations as well as the same of ancient populations via DNA from subfossils. The main qualification is that I doubt we’ll ever get good samples of ancient DNA from the tropics.

Citation: Fernando L. Mendez, Joseph C. Watkins, and Michael F. Hammer,
Global genetic variation at OAS1 provides evidence of archaic admixture in Melanesian populations, Mol Biol, doi:10.1093/molbev/msr301

Image credit: Wikipedia


Comments (5)

  1. gcochran

    “the presence of this haplotype in South Asians ”

    There might be another explanation, involving camels.

  2. The Denisovan mitochondrial genome is already from an old lineage (older than the sapiens-neanderthalensis split), correct? It seems that their ancestry keeps turning out to be more and more complex.

  3. Lassi Hippeläinen

    I wouldn’t pay much attention to one or two persons in the Indian subcontinent. There has been an active trade network between India and the Spice Islands for two millennia or so. Some outliers are inevitable.

    But what about Australia? I thought they were the oldest arrivals in the region, but they have only little of this “Denisovan” material. Did they slip through South Asia befora the Denisovans got there?

  4. But what about Australia? I thought they were the oldest arrivals in the region, but they have only little of this “Denisovan” material. Did they slip through South Asia befora the Denisovans got there?

    their fraction is in line with their ancestry. this allele is way more frequent in papuans than their ancestry quantum of denisovan.

  5. I have to agree with #1 and #3 that the possibility of some level of remote, unknown, Melanesian or Philippino Negrito ancestry in one individual in Sri Lanka and two in Pakistan, which have participated in Indian Ocean maritime interactions with these places for more than a thousand years (I am using the Austronesian arrival in Madagascar as a reference date even though there was Indian Ocean trade in a narrower range of places much earlier and even though Spice Road+Austronesian maritime trade to East Asia links date to the Bronze Age) is more convincing that the theory that there would be some South Asian origin.

    If there was a South Asian origin, one would expect to see a very low frequency cline from Pakistan to Melanesia. Instead, with the exception of the one individual in Sri Lanka and two in Pakistan, there is absolutely nobody in Southeast Asia or even on the other side of the Wallace line within Indonesia. Probably the most plausible source would be in a great or great-great grandparents generation from a sailor someone who married an Indonesian or Phillipino woman and took her home with her.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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