November 14, 2000
Scientists Rough Out Humanity's 50,000-Year-Old Story
By NICHOLAS WADE
From what had seemed like irreversible oblivion, archaeologists and population geneticists believe they are on the verge of retrieving a record of human history stretching back almost 50,000 years.
The record, built on a synthesis of archaeological and genetic data, would be a bare bones kind of history without individual names or deeds. But it could create a chronicle of events, however sketchy, between the dawn of the human species at least 50,000 years ago and the beginning of recorded history in 3,500 B.C. The events would be the dated migrations of people from one region to another, linked with the archaeological cultures and perhaps with development of the world's major language groups.
The new element in this synthesis is the increasing power of geneticists to look back in time and trace the history of past populations from analysis of the DNA of people alive today.
"It is astonishing how much archaeology is beginning to learn from genetics," Dr. Colin Renfrew, a leading archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England, said at a conference on human origins held last month at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.
In one of the most detailed genetic reconstructions of population history so far, Dr. Martin Richards of the University of Huddersfield in England and many colleagues have traced the remarkably ancient ancestry of the present-day population of Europe.
Some 6 percent of Europeans are descended from the continent's first founders, who entered Europe from the Near East in the Upper Paleolithic era 45,000 years ago, Dr. Richards calculates. The descendants of these earliest arrivals are still more numerous in certain regions of Europe that may have provided them with refuge from subsequent waves of immigration. One is the mountainous Basque country, where people still speak a language completely different from all other European languages. Another is in the European extreme of Scandinavia. Another 80 percent arrived 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, before the peak of the last glaciation, and 10 percent came in the Neolithic 10,000 years ago, when the ice age ended and agriculture was first introduced to Europe from the Near East.
It used to be thought that the most important human dispersals occurred in the Neolithic, prompted by the population increases made possible by the invention of agriculture. But it now seems that the world filled up early and the first inhabitants were quite resistant to displacement by later arrivals.
Dr. Richards's estimates, reported in the current issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics, are based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element that occurs in both men and women but that is transmitted only through the mother; thus, they reflect only the movement of women.
The movement of men can be followed through analysis of the Y chromosome, but the Y chromosome is harder to work with and data are only just now becoming available. In an article in the current issue of Science, Dr. Peter A. Underhill of Stanford University and colleagues reported the first analysis of the European population in terms of the Y chromosome. Although this agrees with the mitochondrial DNA findings in major outline, suggesting that Europe was populated mostly in the Paleolithic period with additions in the Neolithic, there are some points of difference.
The earliest migration into Europe according to mitochondrial DNA took place from the Near East 45,000 years ago, but Dr. Underhill and his colleagues said they could see no corresponding migration in the Y chromosome data