Copyright Scientific American
(Editor’s note: A really fascinating read. Worth pursuing the link.)
A development company controlled by Osama bin Ladenâ€šÃ„Ã´s half brother revealed last year that it wants to build a bridge that will span the Bab el Mandeb, the outlet of the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. If this ambitious project is ever realized, the throngs of African pilgrims who traverse one of the longest bridges in the world on a journey to Mecca would pass hundreds of feet above the probable route of the most memorable journey in human history. Fifty or sixty thousand years ago a small band of Africansâ€šÃ„Ã®a few hundred or even several thousandâ€šÃ„Ã®crossed the strait in tiny boats, never to return.
The reason they left their homeland in eastern Africa is not completely understood. Perhaps the climate changed, or once abundant shellfish stocks vanished. But some things are fairly certain. Those first trekkers out of Africa brought with them the physical and behavioral traitsâ€šÃ„Ã®the large brains and the capacity for languageâ€šÃ„Ã®that characterize fully modern humans. From their bivouac on the Asian continent in what is now Yemen, they set out on a decamillennial journey that spanned continents and land bridges and reached all the way to Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America.
Scientists, of course, have gained insight into these wanderings because of the fossilized bones or spearheads laboriously uncovered and stored in collections. But ancestral hand-me-downs are often too scant to provide a complete picture of this remote history. In the past 20 years population geneticists have begun to fill in gaps in the paleoanthropological record by fashioning a genetic bread-crumb trail of the earliest migrations by modern humans.
Almost all our DNAâ€šÃ„Ã®99.9 percent of the three billion â€šÃ„Ãºletters,â€šÃ„Ã¹ or nucleotides, that make up the human genomeâ€šÃ„Ã®is the same from person to person. But interwoven in that last 0.1 percent are telltale differences. A comparison among, say, East Africans and Native Americans can yield vital clues to human ancestry and to the inexorable progression of colonizations from continent to continent. Until recent years, DNA passed down only from fathers to sons or from mothers to their children has served as the equivalent of fossilized footprints for geneticists. The newest research lets scientists adjust their focus, widening the field of view beyond a few isolated stretches of DNA to inspect hundreds of thousands of nucleotides scattered throughout the whole genome.
Scanning broadly has produced global migratory maps of unprecedented resolution, some of which have been published only during recent months. The research provides an endorsement of modern human origins in Africa and shows how that continent served as a reservoir of genetic diversity that trickled out to the rest of the world. A genetic family tree that begins with the San people of Africa at its root ends with South American Indians and Pacific Islanders on its youngest-growing branches.
Gary Stix – Scientific American
Copyright Scientific American