Who we really are

Omo River, southern Ethiopia, site of the oldest known fossil remains  - from 195,000 years ago - of  anatomically modern humans, discovered by Richard Leakey in 1968
Omo River, southern Ethiopia, site of the oldest known human fossil remains

A really interesting piece in today’s Guardian by Victor Keegan. He’s taken part in the Genographic project organised by National Geographic, which is collecting over 100,000 DNA samples from around the world. He writes:

My journey, according to NG, began around 50,000 years ago, when melting ice in northern Europe prompted 10,000 or so of my ancestors – and probably yours – to travel northwards to warmer, moister climates. The first migrants from Africa took a coastal route that ended in Australia. Others later went from Siberia across what was then a land bridge to Alaska, to what is now Canada and the US. My lot, part of the second migration from Africa, followed grasslands and animals to the Middle East.

Another key ancestor born 40,000 years ago somewhere around modern Iran triggered a mutation marking a new lineage that spent the next 30,000 years populating much of the planet, with splinter groups moving into central Asia, Pakistan and India. NG points out that the descendants of my Iranian, or southern-central Asian ancestors, known as the Eurasian clan, include most people in the northern hemisphere, nearly all north Americans and east Asians and many Indians.

I was able to follow the progress of the analysis week by week on the web. The results, in the form of 10 pages of fascinating explanation and a map of my ancestors’ long journey to Europe, have just appeared on my screen. My line has been traced back to 10,000 fellow members of Homo sapiens living in or about the Rift Valley in north Africa (roughly, modern Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania). It seems I am nothing special. About 70% of men in the south of England are fellow members of my “haplogroup”, R1b, rising to more than 90% in parts of Spain and Ireland (95% in the north). A haplogroup is a series of “markers” shared by men carrying the same random mutations in their Y chromosome, only found in males. R1b is a kind of communal marker for men in the UK.

To cut a long story short, about 30,000 years ago our clan, by now numbering about 100,000 people, headed for Europe, marking the end of the 200,000-year era of the Neanderthals that had inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia previously. Some 20,000 years ago, expanding ice forced us to retreat to southern Spain, Italy and the Balkans before eventually moving back to the British Isles.

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