Researchers from the University of Huddersfield, with colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the University of Minho in Braga, have been using a genetic approach to tackle one of the most intractable questions of all — how and when we became truly human.
The Modern Humans
Modern Homo sapiens first arose in Africa more than 300,000 years ago, but there is great controversy amongst scholars about whether the earliest such people would have been ‘just like us’ in their mental capacities – in the sense that, if they were brought up in a family from Yorkshire today, for example, would they be indistinguishable from the rest of the population? Nevertheless, archaeologists believe that people very like us were living in small communities in an Ice Age refuge on the South African coast by at least 100,000 years ago.
Between around 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, these people left plentiful evidence that they were thinking and behaving like modern humans – evidence for symbolism, such as the use of pigments (probably for body painting), drawings and engravings, shell beads, and tiny stone tools called microliths that might have been part of bows and arrows. Some of this evidence for what some archaeologists call “modern human behavior” goes back even further, to more than 150,000 years.
The Genome Trail
But if these achievements somehow made these people special, suggesting a direct line to the people of today, the genetics of their modern ” Khoi-San” descendants in southern Africa doesn’t seem to bear this out. Our genomes imply that almost all modern non-Africans from all over the world – and indeed most Africans too – are derived from a small group of people living not in South Africa but in East Africa, around 60,000-70,000 years ago. There’s been no sign so far that southern Africans contributed to the huge expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa and across the world that took place around that time.
That is, until now. […]