Modern human origins cannot be traced back to a single point in time

Genetic and fossil records do not reveal a single point where modern humans originated, researchers found.

Experts from the Museum, the Francis Crick Institute and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have collaborated to unravel the different lineages of origin in the evolution of our species, Homo sapiens.

They argue that no specific time point can currently be identified as modern human descent has been limited to a limited place of birth. The known patterns of the first appearance of anatomical or behavioral features that are often used to define H. sapiens matches a range of evolutionary histories.

Their new article, published in Nature, reviews our current understanding of how modern human descent around the world can be traced into the distant past, and what ancestors it passes through during our time travel.

Professor Chris Stringer, co-author and researcher at the Museum, says, ‘Some of our ancestors will live in groups or populations that can be identified in the fossil record, while very little will be known about others.

“Over the next decade, a growing understanding of our complex origins should expand the geographical focus to regions previously considered peripheral to our development, such as Central and West Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.”

Three key phases in our origin are surrounded by key questions, including:

  • the global expansion of modern humans 40,000 and 60,000 years ago and the last known contacts with archaic groups such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans
  • African origin of modern human diversity about 60,000 to 300,000 years ago
  • the complex separation of modern human ancestors from archaic human groups about 300,000 to one million years ago

Co-author Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute says, ‘Contrary to what many believe, neither the genetic nor fossil records have so far revealed a definite time and place for the origin of our species.

‘Such a point in time may not have existed when most of our ancestors were in a small geographical area and the traits we associate with our species have emerged. Nowadays it would be useful to move away from the idea of ​​a single time and place of origin. ‘

An interdisciplinary analysis of the growing genetic, fossil, and archaeological records will undoubtedly reveal many new surprises about the roots of modern human descent.