Current consensus indicates that modern humans originated from an ancestral African population between ∼100–200 ka. The ensuing dispersal pattern is controversial, yet has important implications for the demographic history and genetic/phenotypic structure of extant human populations. We test for the first time to our knowledge the spatiotemporal dimensions of competing out-of-Africa dispersal models, analyzing in parallel genomic and craniometric data. Our results support an initial dispersal into Asia by a southern route beginning as early as ∼130 ka and a later dispersal into northern Eurasia by ∼50 ka. Our findings indicate that African Pleistocene population structure may account for observed plesiomorphic genetic/phenotypic patterns in extant Australians and Melanesians. They point to an earlier out-of-Africa dispersal than previously hypothesized.
Despite broad consensus on Africa as the main place of origin for anatomically modern humans, their dispersal pattern out of the continent continues to be intensely debated. In extant human populations, the observation of decreasing genetic and phenotypic diversity at increasing distances from sub-Saharan Africa has been interpreted as evidence for a single dispersal, accompanied by a series of founder effects. In such a scenario, modern human genetic and phenotypic variation was primarily generated through successive population bottlenecks and drift during a rapid worldwide expansion out of Africa in the Late Pleistocene. However, recent genetic studies, as well as accumulating archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence, challenge this parsimonious model. They suggest instead a “southern route” dispersal into Asia as early as the late Middle Pleistocene, followed by a separate dispersal into northern Eurasia. Here we test these competing out-of-Africa scenarios by modeling hypothetical geographical migration routes and assessing their correlation with neutral population differentiation, as measured by genetic polymorphisms and cranial shape variables of modern human populations from Africa and Asia. We show that both lines of evidence support a multiple-dispersals model in which Australo-Melanesian populations are relatively isolated descendants of an early dispersal, whereas other Asian populations are descended from, or highly admixed with, members of a subsequent migration event.
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