On the origin of our species

February 10, 2021

Experts from the Natural History Museum, The Francis Crick Institute and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History Jena have joined together to untangle the different meanings of ancestry in the evolution of our species Homo sapiens.

Most of us are fascinated by our ancestry, and by extension the ancestry of the human species. We regularly see headlines like 'New human ancestor discovered' or 'New fossil changes everything we thought about our ancestry', and yet the meanings of words like ancestor and ancestry are rarely discussed in detail. In the new paper, published in Nature, experts review our current understanding of how modern human ancestry around the globe can be traced into the distant past, and which ancestors it passes through during our journey back in time.

Co-author researcher at the Natural History Museum Prof Chris Stringer said: "Some of our ancestors will have lived in groups or populations that can be identified in the fossil record, whereas very little will be known about others. Over the next decade, growing recognition of our complex origins should expand the geographic focus of paleoanthropological fieldwork to regions previously considered peripheral to our evolution, such as Central and West Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia."

The study identified three key phases in our ancestry that are surrounded by major questions, and which will be frontiers in coming research. From the worldwide expansion of modern humans about 40-60 thousand years ago and the last known contacts with archaic groups such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans, to an African origin of modern human diversity about 60-300,000 years ago, and finally the complex separation of modern human ancestors from archaic human groups about 300,000 to 1 million years ago.

The scientists argue that no specific point in time can currently be identified when modern human ancestry was confined to a limited birthplace, and that the known patterns of the first appearance of anatomical or behavioural traits that are often used to define Homo sapiens fit a range of evolutionary histories.

Co-author Pontus Skoglund from The Francis Crick Institute said: "Contrary to what many believe, neither the genetic or fossil record have so far revealed a defined time and place for the origin of our species. Such a point in time, when the majority of our ancestry was found in a small geographic region and the traits we associate with our species appeared, may not have existed. For now, it would be useful to move away from the idea of a single time and place of origin."

"Following from this, major emerging questions concern which mechanisms drove and sustained this human patchwork, with all its diverse ancestral threads, over time and space," said co-author Eleanor Scerri from the Pan-African Evolution Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "Understanding the relationship between fractured habitats and shifting human niches will undoubtedly play a key role in unravelling these questions, clarifying which demographic patterns provide a best fit with the genetic and palaeoanthropological record."

The success of direct genetic analyses so far highlights the importance of a wider, ancient genetic record. This will require continued technological improvements in ancient DNA (aDNA) retrieval, biomolecular screening of fragmentary fossils to find unrecognised human material, wider searches for sedimentary aDNA, and improvements in the evolutionary information provided by ancient proteins. Interdisciplinary analysis of the growing genetic, fossil and archaeological records will undoubtedly reveal many new surprises about the roots of modern human ancestry.
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About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity's needs with those of the natural world.

It is custodian of one of the world's most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.

The Museum's 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.

The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.

About the Francis Crick Institute

The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping to understand why disease develops and to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.

An independent organisation, its founding partners are the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, Wellcome, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King's College London.

The Crick was formed in 2015, and in 2016 it moved into a brand new state-of-the-art building in central London which brings together 1500 scientists and support staff working collaboratively across disciplines, making it the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe.
http://crick.ac.uk/

About the Pan-African Evolution Research Group

The Pan-African Evolution Research Group, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History is an independent research group dedicated to investigating the origins of our species and the parallel transformation of environments and ecosystems. The group's work is unravelling the human story from the perspective of poorly researched regions and environments, coalescing new data and developing novel methods to understand patterns of population movement, cultural change, ecological adaptations, disease, and interactions with now extinct hominins. This research feeds into solutions of current global challenges by contributing lessons from the past to find sustainable solutions to the dual biodiversity and climate crises.

The Pan African Research Group was formed in early 2019 within the framework of the Max Planck Society's flagship Lise Meitner Excellence Programme.

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

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