There are two interesting and related papers out today which I want to review really quickly, in particular in relation to the results (as opposed to the guts of the methods). Taken together they do change our perception of how the world was settled by anatomically modern humans, and if the findings are found to be valid via replication (I think this is likely, in at least some parts) I was clearly wrong and misled others in assertions I made earlier on this weblog (more on that later). The first paper is somewhat easier to parse because it is in some ways a follow up on the paper from 2010 which documented admixture into Near Oceanian (Melanesian + Australian Aboriginal) populations from a distant hominin lineage, the Denisovans.
In this paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics they extend their geographic coverage. Denisova Admixture and the First Modern Human Dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania:
It has recently been shown that ancestors of New Guineans and Bougainville Islanders have inherited a proportion of their ancestry from Denisovans, an archaic hominin group from Siberia. However, only a sparse sampling of populations from Southeast Asia and Oceania were analyzed. Here, we quantify Denisova admixture in 33 additional populations from Asia and Oceania. Aboriginal Australians, Near Oceanians, Polynesians, Fijians, east Indonesians, and Mamanwa (a “Negrito” group from the Philippines) have all inherited genetic material from Denisovans, but mainland East Asians, western Indonesians, Jehai (a Negrito group from Malaysia), and Onge (a Negrito group from the Andaman Islands) have not. These results indicate that Denisova gene flow occurred into the common ancestors of New Guineans, Australians, and Mamanwa but not into the ancestors of the Jehai and Onge and suggest that relatives of present-day East Asians were not in Southeast Asia when the Denisova gene flow occurred. Our finding that descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Southeast Asia do not all harbor Denisova admixture is inconsistent with a history in which the Denisova interbreeding occurred in mainland Asia and then spread over Southeast Asia, leading to all its earliest modern human inhabitants. Instead, the data can be most parsimoniously explained if the Denisova gene flow occurred in Southeast Asia itself. Thus, archaic Denisovans must have lived over an extraordinarily broad geographic and ecological range, from Siberia to tropical Asia.
“…the occupation of Australia/New Guinea is momentous in that it demanded watercraft and provides by far the earliest evidence of their use in history. Not until about 30,000 years later (13,000 years ago) is there strong evidence of watercraft anyway else in the world, from the Mediterranean.
Initially, archaeologists considered the possibility that the colonization of Australia/New Guinea was achieved accidentally by just a few people swept to sea while fishing on a raft near an Indonesian island. In an extreme scenario the first settlers are picture as having consisted of a single pregnant young woman carrying a male fetus. But believers in the fluke-colonization theory have been surprised by recent discovers that still other islands, lying to the east of New Guinea, were colonized soon after New Guinea itself, by around 35,000 years ago….”
– page 42 of Guns, Germs and Steel
The settlement of Australia is a breakthrough in the “human story.” Very soon after anatomically modern humans began to replace (and to some extent assimilate) other lineages of our genus in Eurasia we pushed beyond the previous outer limits of the domains of humankind. The ancestors of Australian Aboriginals swept past the Wallace Line, and quickly settled the Ice Age continent of Sahul, consisting of Australia and Papua New Guinea. The biogeography of Australia is well known. Aside from bats and some endemic rodents the continent was free of placental mammals before modern humans arrived.