Evidence reveals our fractured African roots

By Carol Clark | July 11, 2018

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Jessica Thompson in the field in Malawi, where her archaeological sites are at a crossroads between southern and eastern Africa. Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson.

Anthropologists are challenging the long-held view that humans evolved from a single ancestral population in one region of Africa. Instead, a scientific consortium has found that human ancestors were diverse in form and culture and scattered across the continent. These populations were subdivided by different habitats and shifting environmental boundaries, such as forests and deserts.

The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution published the findings, which drew from studies of bones (anthropology), stones (archaeology) and genes (population genomics), along with new and more detailed reconstructions of Africa’s climates and habitats over the last 300,000 years.

Emory University anthropologist Jessica Thompson was one of 23 authors on the paper. The research was led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and the University of Oxford in England. In the following Q&A, Thompson explains the paper and its significance.

Can you provide some background on our understanding of human evolution? 

Jessica Thompson: Even as early as 20 years ago, fossils were the main material we had to try to answer the question of where humans originated. A multi-regionalist theory hypothesized that Homo sapiens emerged in different places at the same time, evolving at the same rate across the Old World. This would mean that there was extensive gene exchange across ancient Asia, Europe and Africa, and that groups such as Neanderthals would not be a separate species but just a localized form of Homo sapiens. But it is difficult to get that level of resolution from bones alone.

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