Over the years one issue that crops up repeatedly in human evolutionary genetics and paleoanthropology (or more precisely, the popular exposition of the topics in the media) is the idea that is that “population X are the most ancient Y.” X will always refer to a population within a larger set, Y, which is defined by relative marginalization or retention of older cultural folkways. So, for example, I have seen it said that the Andaman Islanders are the “most ancient Asian population.” Why? The standard model for a while now has been that non-Africans derive from a line of Africans which left the ancestral continent 50 to 100 thousand years ago, and began to diversify. Presumably Andaman Islanders have ancestry which goes back to this original dispersion, just as Europeans and Chinese do (revisions which suggest that Aboriginals may have been part of an earlier wave, still put the Andamanese in the second wave). The reason that the Andaman populations are termed ancient is pretty straightforward: they’re Asia’s last hunter-gatherers, literally chucking spears at outsiders. An ancient lifestyle gets conflated with ancient genetics.
This is a much bigger problem with the hunter-gatherers of Africa, the Pygmies, Hadza, and Bushmen. The reason is that these populations are of particular interest because they seem to have diverged from the rest of humanity rather early on. Both Y chromosomes and mtDNA confirmed this, and now autosomal analyses looking across the whole genome are confirming it. In other words, they’re basal to the rest of humanity. I believe this is moderately misleading. With the Bantu Expansion much of African genetic diversity disappeared. The hunter-gatherers seem exceptional long and bare branches on the phylogenetic tree because all their relatives are gone!
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare [children] to them, the same [became] mighty men which [were] of old, men of renown.”
The Pith: Pygmies and Khoisan have admixture from a distinct population at the level of ~2%. This population diverged from the other ~98% of their ancestry ~700,000 years before the present, and the hybridization occurred ~30-40,000 years before the present. Most other African groups have only traces of this element, with some West Africans lacking it.
I have read the paper in PNAS which I referred to below. There isn’t that much I can add at this point. A lot of the guts were pushed into the supplements, which aren’t on the web yet. I was correct that the Mbuti Pygmies of the eastern Congo likely have a special place in this possible admixture event. In particular, they seem to possess the diverged variants found in the western Pygmies, the Biaka, and the Khoisan populations of southern Africa. As assumed the pattern of admixture seems to be such that the two Pygmy groups and the Khoisan exhibit elevated signatures of archaic contributions, while other African groups manifest admixture in direct proportion to their known admixture to the aforementioned populations. For example, the Bantu group with the highest proportion of admixture are the Xhosa, who also have the most Khoisan ancestry of non-Khoisan populations. The West African Mandenka seem to have trivial admixture from this archaic group. What does this mean?
The Pith: There has been a long running argument whether Pygmies in Africa are short due to “nurture” or “nature.” It turns out that non-Pygmies with more Pygmy ancestry are shorter and Pygmies with more non-Pygmy ancestry are taller. That points to nature.
In terms of how one conceptualizes the relationship of variation in genes to variation in a trait one can frame it as a spectrum with two extremes. One the one hand you have monogenic traits where the variation is controlled by differences on just one locus. Many recessively expressed diseases fit this patter (e.g., cystic fibrosis). Because you have one gene with only a few variants of note it is easy to capture in one’s mind’s eye the pattern of Mendelian inheritance for these traits in a gestalt fashion. Monogenic traits are highly amenable to a priori logic because their atomic units are so simple and tractable. At the other extreme you have quantitative polygenic traits, where the variation of the trait is controlled by variation on many, many, genes. This may seem a simple formulation, but to try and understand how thousands of genes may act in concert to modulate variation on a trait is often a more difficult task to grokk (yes, you can appeal to the central limit theorem, but that means little to most intuitively). This is probably why heritability is such a knotty issue in terms of public understanding of science, as it concerns the component of variation in quantitative continuous traits which is dispersed across the genome. The traits where there is no “gene for X.” Additionally, quantitative traits are likely to have a substantial environmental component of variation, confounding a simple genotype to phenotype mapping.
Arguably the classic quantitative trait is height. It is clear and distinct (there aren’t arguments about the validity of measurement as occurs in psychometrics), and, it is substantially heritable. In Western societies with a surfeit of nutrition height is ~80-90% heritable. What this means is that ~80-90% of the variance of the trait value within the population is due to variance of the genes within the population. Concretely, there will be a very strong correspondence between the heights of offspring and the average height of the two parents (controlled for sex, so you’re thinking standard deviation units, not absolute units). And yet height is at the heart of the question of the “missing heriability” in genetics. By this, I mean the fact that so few genes have been associated with variation in height, despite the reality that who your parents are is the predominant determination of height in developed societies.
Dienekes mentioned today a new paper, Signatures of the pre-agricultural peopling processes in sub-Saharan Africa as revealed by the phylogeography of early Y chromosome lineages. Because of the recent comments in this space on the genetic history of Africa I was curious, but after reading it I have to say I can’t make much sense of the alphabet soup of haplogroups. Remember, there are different ways to capture and analyze the variation in one’s genes. A common activity is to sweep over the whole genome and focus on single nucleotide polymorphisms, variation at the base pair level. So my own analyses using ADMIXTURE focus on tens or hundreds of thousands of such markers. But there are other types of genomic variation, such as copy number, microsatellites, and minsatellites.
Additionally, much of the older human phylogeographic literature focused on mtDNA and Y chromosomal variance. For mtDNA it was partly a function of how easy it was to extract the genetic material (it’s copious on the cellular level). But perhaps more importantly these two types of variance aren’t subject to recombination. This means they are defined by clean phylogenetic trees which do not exhibit reticulation (recombination chops apart correlated markers and mixes & matches them) and presumably are not subject to natural selection, and so perfect for coalescent theory. So you can posit lineages related to each other by steps of sets of mutations, and also easily calculate the time until the last common ancestor for two different branches of the tree using a “molecular clock” model.
Here’s the abstract:
The transition from hunting and gathering to farming involved a major cultural innovation that has spread rapidly over most of the globe in the last ten millennia. In sub-Saharan Africa, hunter-gatherers have begun to shift toward an agriculture-based lifestyle over the last 5,000 years. Only a few populations still base their mode of subsistence on hunting and gathering. The Pygmies are considered to be the largest group of mobile hunter-gatherers of Africa. They dwell in equatorial rainforests and are characterized by their short mean stature. However, little is known about the chronology of the demographic events–size changes, population splits, and gene flow–ultimately giving rise to contemporary Pygmy (Western and Eastern) groups and neighboring agricultural populations. We studied the branching history of Pygmy hunter-gatherers and agricultural populations from Africa and estimated separation times and gene flow between these populations. We resequenced 24 independent noncoding regions across the genome, corresponding to a total of ~33 kb per individual, in 236 samples from seven Pygmy and five agricultural populations dispersed over the African continent. We used simulation-based inference to identify the historical model best fitting our data. The model identified included the early divergence of the ancestors of Pygmy hunter-gatherers and farming populations ~60,000 years ago, followed by a split of the Pygmies’ ancestors into the Western and Eastern Pygmy groups ~20,000 years ago. Our findings increase knowledge of the history of the peopling of the African continent in a region lacking archaeological data. An appreciation of the demographic and adaptive history of African populations with different modes of subsistence should improve our
understanding of the influence of human lifestyles on genome diversity.
Most people know the standard Out of Africa model. ~50-10,000 years before the present modern humans left the African continent, therefore extant human populations today are descendants of this migration event. The main argument on the margins is only about the possibility of introgression of genetic variants from other non-African lineages into the human gene pool as a supplementary assimilation to the dominant dynamic of replacement. But the story in Africa did not end with that. It is famously well known that Africans have the most genetic diversity of human populations, arguably more than all other populations combined (from mtDNA, Y lineages and more recent autosomal studies). There is population structure, Africa did not remain in stasis after the ancestors of non-Africans left ~75,000 years ago. This paper addresses some of the deeper questions about African structure.