The Pith: Over the past 10,000 years a small coterie of farming populations expanded rapidly and replaced hunter-gatherer groups which were once dominant across the landscape. So, the vast majority of the ancestry of modern Europeans can be traced back to farming cultures of the eastern Mediterranean which swept over the west of Eurasia between 10 and 5 thousand years before the before.
Dienekes Pontikos points me to a new paper in PNAS which uses a coalescent model of 400+ mitochondrial DNA lineages to infer the pattern of expansions of populations over the past ~40,000 years. Remember that mtDNA is passed just through the maternal lineage. That means it is not subject to the confounding dynamic of recombination, allowing for easier modeling as a phylogenetic tree. Unlike the autosomal genome there’s no reticulation. Additionally, mtDNA tends to be highly mutable, and many regions have been presumed to be selectively neutral. So they are the perfect molecular clock. There straightforward drawback is that the history of one’s foremothers may not be a good representative of the history of one’s total lineage. Additionally the haploid nature of mtDNA means that genetic drift is far more powerful in buffeting gene frequencies and introduced stochastic fluctuations, which eventually obscure past mutational signals through myriad mutations. Finally, there are serious concerns as to the neutrality of mtDNA…though the authors claim to address that in the methods. I should also add that it also happens to be the case that there is less controversy and more surety as to the calibration of mutational rates of mtDNA than the Y chromosomal lineages of males. Their good for determining temporal patterns of demographic change, and not just tree structures.
Here’s the abstract, Rapid, global demographic expansions after the origins of agriculture: