A few months ago I exchanged some emails with Milford H. Wolpoff and Chris Stringer. These are the two figures who have loomed large in paleoanthropology and the origins of modernity human for a generation, and they were keen in making sure that their perspectives were represented accurately in the media. To further that they sent me some documents which would lay out their perspective, in their own words, and away from the public glare (as in, they’re academic publications).
My post The paradigm is dead, long live the paradigm! expressed to some extent my befuddlement at the current state of human evolutionary genetics and paleoanthropology. After the review of the paper of possible elevated admixture with Neandertals on the dystrophin locus a friend emailed, “Remember when we thought everything would be so simple once we could finally see this stuff?” Indeed I do remember. The fact that things aren’t simple is very exhilarating, but it is also a major quash on theoretical clarity. Science is after all not a collection of facts, but it is in part facts which one can sieve through a analytic framework.
In hindsight with the relative robustness of ancient DNA results we can make some assessments about the role of human bias within particular heuristic frameworks over the past generation. From the mid-1980s up until 2000 it was victory after victory for the Out-of-Africa with total replacement model. The rise of mtDNA and Y chromosomal lineage studies seemed to buttress the idea of common descent from neo-Africans within the last 100-200,000 years for all human populations. There wasn’t much of a perturbation from this march toward paradigm ascendancy in the aughts, except that there were now also now a trickle of papers which claimed to phylogenetic “long branches” in the human genome. The 2006 Evans et al. paper, Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage, was probably the one that made the biggest media splash. But these were inferences. Subsequent analysis of the draft Neandertal genome seems to suggest that in fact the microcephalin allele in question did not introgress.
Case closed? Obviously not. Now we’re in a different era. The Evans et al. paper may have wrong in the specifics, but its general framework seems to likely have been validated: there are genetic lineages in the modern human genome which are not derived from the neo-Africans. But, let us remember that the overwhelming majority of the human genome is neo-African. A reasonable interval for non-Africans is 90-99% neo-African. But, a non-trivial minority has introgressed or admixed from other lineages. Out-of-Africa is mostly correct, but in some ways so is Multiregionalism. But how do we describe this? “Weighted multiregionalism”? “Mostly Out-of-Africa?” The old terms were nice because they were punchy and precise. If you look at Multiregionalism or Out-of-Africa in Wikipedia the newest results are noted, but it doesn’t seem that they’ve been integrated into the analytic narrative. Yet.
Dilettante human genetics blogger Dienekes Pontikos has a post up with a somewhat oblique title, Is multi-regional evolution dead? I say oblique because a straightforward title would be “Multi-regionalism lives!” He posted a chart from a 2008 paper which outlines various models of human origins, and their relationship to molecular data at the time. I have also posted the chart, but with a little creative editing on the “assimilation” scenario to reflect the possible Neandertal and Denisovan admixture events. Of these models the “candelabra” can be rejected as highly implausible. It posits very deep roots in a given region for distinct human populations. Unless you accept some sort of hominin population structure in Africa which were maintained by distinctive migrations out of Africa then the “replacement” model can be discarded (since the classic replacement model did not posit ancient African population structure being of any relevance outside of Africa you’d have to salvage it with a modification in light of new results).
So the two primary disputants are a resurrected multi-regional model, and the assimilation model. But these two are really endpoints on a spectrum of models. What you need to do is vary the number of discrete populations and the rate of migration between the populations over time. The beauty of the replacement model was its parsimony: as far as recent human origins were concerned past gene flow via migration was a relatively academic concern. It was an exceedingly simple narrative framework. Consider this first episode of a 2009 British documentary, The Incredible Human Journey:
Mitochondrial DNA from 147 people, drawn from five geographic populations have been analysed by restriction mapping. All these mitochondrial DMAs stem from one woman who is postulated to have lived ab7out 200,000 years ago, probably in Africa. All the populations examined except the African population have multiple origins, implying that each area was colonised repeatedly
And so was published in the year 1987 the paper which established in the public’s mind the idea of mitochondrial Eve, which gave rise to a famous cover photo in Newsweek. This also led to the Children of Eve episode on the PBS documentary NOVA. Here is the summary:
NOVA examines a controversial theory that traces our ancestry to a small group of women living in Africa 300,000 years ago.
As Milford Wolpoff has complained it is probably accurate to characterize the documentary as not particularly “fair & balanced.” Mitochondrial Eve may have been controversial, and subsequently plagued by issues of molecular clock calibration as well as spurious interpretations of the cladograms, but the tide of history was on its side, and PBS was telling that story. And the story was not just the primary science, rather, one had to understand the controversy in light of the debates among paleontologists and between paleontologists and molecular biologists. A group of researchers, spearheaded by Chris Stringer argued for the recent origin of modern humans from Africa on the basis of fossils alone. They were challenged by an established school of multiregionalists who argued for deeper roots of modern human populations, which derived from local hominins which diversified after the the migration of H. erectus out of Africa. The argument of the multiregionalists was that selective sweeps across the full range of the human populations gave rise gradually to modern humanity as we know it, a compound of specific ancient local features and trans-population characters which unified us into a broader whole. Stringer and company presented a simpler model where anatomically modern human being arose ~200,000 years ago in Africa, and subsequently expanded to other parts of the world, by and large replacing the local hominin populations. In the multiregionalist telling Neandertals became human beings, while Out of Africa would imply that Neandertals were replaced by human beings.
Quick review. In the 19th century once the idea that humans were derived from non-human ancestral species was injected into the bloodstream of the intellectual classes there was an immediate debate as to the location of the proto-human homeland; the Urheimat of us all. Charles Darwin favored Africa, but in many ways this ran against the cultural grain. The theory of evolution was birthed before the highest tide of the age of white supremacy and European hegemony, and Darwin’s model had to swim against the conviction that Africans were the most primitive of the colored races. After the waning of the ideological edifice of white supremacy, and the shock it received during and after World War II, the debates as to the origin of humanity still remained contentious and followed the same outlines (though without the charged normative inferences). But as the decades wore on many more researchers began to believe that Darwin was correct, and that the origin of humanity lay in the African continent. First, the deep origin of the human lineage in Africa was accepted, but eventually a more recent expansion out of Africa was argued for by one school. The turning point in these academic disputes was the popularization of the “mitochondrial Eve” theory of the 1980s.
What some paleontologists had long argued, that anatomically modern humans have their locus of origin in Africa, was supported now by research from genetics which indicated that Africans were the most basal clade of humans on a continental scale, so that non-Africans could be conceived of as a subset of Africans. From this originates the chestnut of wisdom that Africans have more genetic diversity than all other human populations combined. By the year 2000 one could say that the “Out of Africa” triumphalism had proceeded to the point where an almost exterminationist model had taken hold when it came to the relationships of anatomically modern H. sapiens, and other groups which had evolved outside of Africa over the past million or so years, such as the Neandertals.
But the theoretical dichotomies were too coarse and absolute as it turns out. A division between multiregionalist phyletic gradualism, where H. sapiens evolved out of its hominin ancestors concurrently on a world wide scale, and a model of rapid expansion of one tribe in Africa to replace all others in totality, may have been warranted in the age of classical genetics and a morphometric analysis, but now we can look at the raw genomic material in a more fine-grained fashion. In fact, we can now look at the genomic patterns of variation among extinct hominins! Though there have long been hints that the expansion-and-replacement paradigm was too extreme from the genetic and morphological data, with the publication last spring in Science of a paper which made the claim for admixture between Neandertals and non-Africans in the range of 1-4% in all non-African groups based on a comparison of Neandertal and modern human genetic variation, one can dismiss absolutist expansion-and-replacement as self-evidently true orthodoxy. But one orthodoxy has no given way to another, and the shock to the old models presented by the data has not resulted in the coalescence of new robust paradigms. We live in a time of scientific troubles, so to speak.