January 26, 2018

Out of Africa: a theory in crisis

The sensational discovery of modern humans in the Levant 177-194 thousand years ago should cause a rethink of the currently held Out-of-Africa orthodoxy.

By Out-of-Africa, I mean here the origin of anatomically modern humans, as opposed to the earlier origin of the genus Homo or the later origin of behaviorally fully modern humans.

Two main pieces of evidence supported the conventional OOA theory:

1. The observation that modern Eurasians possess a subset of the genetic variation of modern Africans.
2. The greater antiquity of AMH humans in the African rather than the Eurasian palaeoanthropological record.

Both these observations are in crisis.

1a. The oldest African fossil AMH is in North Africa (Morocco, Jebel Irhoud); modern genetic variation does not single out this region as a potential source of modern humans. In short, modern genetic variation has nothing to say about where AMH originated.
1b. Eurasians can no longer be seen as a subset of Africans, given that they possess genetic variation from Denisovans, a layer of ancestry earlier than all extant AMH. While it is still true that most Eurasian genetic material is a subset of that of modern Africans, it is also true that the deepest known lineage of humans is the Denisovan-Sima de los huesos, with no evidence for any deeper African lineage. Within humans as a whole, Africans possess a subset of Eurasian genetic variation.
2a. African priority received a boost by 0.1My by the redating of Jebel Irhoud last year. And, non-African AMH received a boost of 0.05My by the Hershkovitz et al. paper yesterday. A very short time ago, Ethiopia boasted the oldest AMH by 0.07My and now it's tied with the Levant and beaten by Morocco. It's a bit silly to argue for temporal priority based on the spotty and ever-shifting palaeoanthropological record.
2b. It is virtually untenable to consider the ~120,000 year old Shkul/Qafzeh hominins as a failed Out-of-Africa, since it now seems that they may have been descendants from the Mislya Cave population of >50,000 or even >100,000 years earlier.

I had previously supported a "two deserts" theory of human origins in which AMH originated in North Africa (Sahara) and then left Africa >100kya as evidenced by the Shkul/Qafzeh hominins and/or the Nubian technocomplex in Arabia. While I am still convinced that AMH originated somewhere in North Africa or the Near East, I am less certain as to where.

Science 26 Jan 2018: Vol. 359, Issue 6374, pp. 456-459 DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8369

The earliest modern humans outside Africa

Israel Hershkovitz et al.

To date, the earliest modern human fossils found outside of Africa are dated to around 90,000 to 120,000 years ago at the Levantine sites of Skhul and Qafzeh. A maxilla and associated dentition recently discovered at Misliya Cave, Israel, was dated to 177,000 to 194,000 years ago, suggesting that members of the Homo sapiens clade left Africa earlier than previously thought. This finding changes our view on modern human dispersal and is consistent with recent genetic studies, which have posited the possibility of an earlier dispersal of Homo sapiens around 220,000 years ago. The Misliya maxilla is associated with full-fledged Levallois technology in the Levant, suggesting that the emergence of this technology is linked to the appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, as has been documented in Africa.


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