Whew, that was close
Humans came within a whisker of obliteration eons ago, studies suggest
Apr 25, 2008 04:30 AM
Randolph E. Schmid
WASHINGTON–The human race may have had a brush with extinction 70,000 years ago, two new genetic studies suggests.
The human population at that time was reduced to small isolated groups in Africa, apparently because of drought, according to an analysis published yesterday in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
The report notes a separate study by researchers at Stanford University estimates the number of early humans may have shrunk as low as 2,000 before numbers began to expand again in the early Stone Age.
"This study illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights into some of the key events in our species' history," said Spencer Wells, National Geographic Society explorer in residence. "Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world," Wells said in a statement. "Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA."
Wells is director of the Genographic Project published yesterday. It was launched in 2005 to study anthropology using genetics.
Previous studies using mitochondrial DNA – which is passed down through mothers – have traced modern humans to a single ``mitochondrial Eve," who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.
The migrations of humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the world appear to have begun about 60,000 years ago, but little has been known about humans between Eve and that dispersal.
The new study looks at the mitochondrial DNA of the Khoi and San people in South Africa who appear to have diverged from other people 90,000 to 150,000 years ago.
The researchers concluded that humans separated into small populations prior to the Stone Age, when they came back together and began to increase in numbers and spread to other areas.
Eastern Africa experienced a string of severe droughts between 135,000 and 90,000 years ago. The researchers said this climatological shift may have contributed to the population changes, dividing people into small, isolated groups which developed independently.
Paleontologist Meave Leakey, a Genographic adviser, commented: ``Who would have thought that as recently as 70,000 years ago, extremes of climate had reduced our population to such small numbers that we were on the very edge of extinction?"
Today more than 6.6 billion people inhabit the planet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The research was funded by the National Geographic Society, IBM, Waitt Family Foundation, Seaver Family Foundation, Family Tree DNA and Arizona Research Labs.http://www.thestar.com/News/World/article/418282