Human evolution as a braided stream rather than a branching tree

An interspecies love child? from Nature (Christoph P.E. Zollikofer)

An interspecies love child? from Nature (Christoph P.E. Zollikofer)

The genetic history of modern humans is creating a vast jigsaw puzzle. Genetic evidence is mounting that most people today carry some Neanderthal genes, that some carry what have been labelled “Denisovan” genes, that Denosivans and Neanderthals not only had a common ancestor but that there also was admixture between some Denisovans and some Neanderthals and that there was at least one other as yet unnamed archaic honim which interbred with the Denisovans. It now becomes clear that viewing all these various archaic humans as different species could be wrong. They could all well be the same species.

Chris Finlayson reviews the  paleoanthropology advances during 2013:

The conclusion of the Dmanisi study was that the variation in skull shape and morphology observed in this small sample, derived from a single population of Homo erectus, matched the entire variation observed among African fossils ascribed to three species – H. erectus, H. habilis and H. rudolfensis.

The five highly variable Dmanisi fossils belonged to a single population of H. erectus, so how could we argue any longer that similar variation among spatially and temporally widely distributed fossils in Africa reflected differences between species? They all had to be the same species. 

I have been advocating that the morphological differences observed within fossils typically ascribed to Homo sapiens (the so-called modern humans) and the Neanderthals fall within the variation observable in a single species.

It was not surprising to find that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, a clear expectation of the biological species concept. …. If the fossils of 1.8 or so million years ago and those of the more recent Neanderthal-modern human era were all part of a single, morphologically diverse, species with a wide geographical range, what is there to suggest that it would have been any different in the intervening periods?

Probably not so different if we take the latest finds from the Altai Mountains in Siberia into account. Denisova Cave has produced yet another surprise, revealing that, not only was there gene flow between Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, but that a fourth player was also involved in the gene-exchange game.

The identity of the fourth player remains unknown but it was an ancient lineage that had been separate for probably over a million years. H. erectus seems a likely candidate. Whatever the name we choose to give this mystery lineage, what these results show is that gene flow was possible not just among contemporaries but also between ancient and more modern lineages.

Just to show how little we really know of the human story, another genetic surprise has confounded palaeoanthropologists. Scientists succeeded in extracting the most ancient mitochondrial DNA so far, from the Sima de los Huesos site in Atapuerca, Spain.

The morphology of these well-known Middle Pleistocene (approximately 400,000 years old) fossils have long been thought to represent a lineage leading to the Neanderthals.

When the results came in they were actually closer to the 40,000 year-old Denisovans from Siberia. We can speculate on the result but others have offered enough alternatives for me to not to have to add to them. The conclusion that I derive takes me back to Dmanisi: We have built a picture of our evolution based on the morphology of fossils and it was wrong.

Some time ago we replaced a linear view of our evolution by one represented by a branching tree. It is now time to replace it with that of an interwoven plexus of genetic lineages that branch out and fuse once again with the passage of time

A braided stream rather than the branches of a tree is the better analogy where  – as John Hawkes describes it:

The “braided stream” analogy captures different information about human origins than the usual branching tree. The branches of a tree do not reconnect with each other above the point where they initially separate. A tree will never admit to exchanging sap between its branches, and there are no little xylem hyphae between branches to carry sap anyway. Our evolution was truly a network in which multiple populations existed and contributed to our process of adaptation.

But the braided stream is not quite satisfactory for the picture that is emerging:

promiscuity in the pleistocene

John Hawkes again:

I admit that the braided stream is not a perfect analogy. Diverging rivulets within a valley almost always come together again, forming a complicated network as they form sandbars and islets. None of them flow into a cul-de-sac. Some human populations of the past did become extinct, they did not inexorably flow back into the mainstream of our evolutionary history. Some of them may have flowed back into the mainstream only through very small channels of genetic exchange. When we go far enough back, some populations really did branch off into their own direction. It’s just not clear yet which populations those were. Maybe an evolutionary swamp would be a better analogy, full of algae-covered bayous.

I like the braided stream, and it’s clear that its time has come. Ancient DNA has begun to show the process of genetic exchange was not a minor player in our evolution. All human populations today evidence some mixture of ancient populations that existed well before the “origin of modern humans”. Genetic exchanges between different populations were dominant in the formation of some human adaptations. Some ancient populations can be understood only as the mixed descendants of other, yet more ancient ones. It’s mixing all the way back.


A braided river from Image – Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The story will most likely become much more complex – as further pieces of the jigsaw are revealed – before the whole picture can be seen But it is already becoming apparent that the origin of modern humans includes genetic exchange with many “species” supposed to have predated AMH and this exchange was not insignificant.

Perhaps the concept of “Anatomically Modern Humans” has to be expanded and pushed back in time. Rather than an origin some 200,000 years ago the start of “modern humans” could need to be pushed back to about 500,000 years ago and has to somehow bring Neanderthals and Denisovans (and some others) back into the fold.

And maybe our ancestors of 20,000 generations ago were just as shocked at a Denisovan-Neanderthal marriage as some in India are today at an “inter-caste” marriage!


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2 Responses to “Human evolution as a braided stream rather than a branching tree”

  1. lidiahristova Says:

    Reblogged this on devils and black sheep..

  2. Promiscuity in the Pleistocene | 6,000 Generations Says:

    […] Human evolution as a braided stream rather than a branching tree […]

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