We can see, that in the rudest state of society, the individuals who were the most sagacious, who invented and used the best weapons or traps, and who were best able to defend themselves, would rear the greatest number of offspring. The tribes, which included the largest number of men thus endowed, would increase in number and supplant other tribes. . . . As a tribe increases and is victorious, it is often still further increased by the absorption of other tribes. The stature and strength of the men of a tribe are likewise of some importance for its success, and these depend in part on the nature and amount of the food which can be obtained. All that we know about savages, or may infer from their traditions and from old monuments, the history of which is quite forgotten by the present inhabitants, show that from the remotest times successful tribes have supplanted other tribes. CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN
WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF LANGUAGE, the process of human evolution in Africa reached a decisive stage. After 5 million years, the human lineage that split off from apes had emerged into a people quite similar in their form and faculties to those who live today. This people, which can be called the ancestral human population, was probably the first to have possessed fully modern speech, and the last from which all people on earth are descended. Since it dispersed so quickly after its formation, it may have endured for only a few thousand years.
Not only did the ancestral population probably have a fleeting existence, it seems to have survived by the narrowest of margins. It lived sometime between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, probably nearer to the 50,000-year mark. Between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago much of Africa was depopulated, and only in East Africa can archaeologists detect a human presence.63 The reason may have been a long period of dry climate that shrank the forests and dried out the savannas. The ancestral population itself, geneticists estimate, shrank to as few as 5,000 people.
From this village-sized population, the world was peopled. And since people in societies around the world behave in much the same way, the principal elements of human nature must already have been present in the ancestral human population before its dispersal into Africa and the world beyond.
It would be of the greatest interest to know everything about the ancestral human population—its way of life, its social structure, the roles of men and women, its religion, the language that its members spoke. Not a trace of these first people has yet been found by archaeologists. Yet despite the total lack of direct evidence, a surprising amount can now be inferred about the ancestral human population.
Geneticists can estimate how large the population was and, by identifying its closest descendants, can point to where in Africa the ancestral population may have lived. They can even say something about the language the ancestral people spoke. And by analyzing the behaviors common to societies around the world, particularly the hunter-gatherers who seem closest to the ancestral people, anthropologists can describe how the ancestral population probably lived and what its people were like.
Because everyone in the world is descended from the ancestral population, geneticists can infer some of its properties by analyzing the DNA of living people, and then working backward. Two parts of the human genome are particularly useful for this purpose. One is the Y chromosome, the only chromosome possessed by men alone. The other is known as mitochondrial DNA. These are the only two parts of the genome that escape the shuffling of genetic material between generations. The shuffling, an evolutionary mechanism for generating diversity rapidly at each generation, means that almost all other parts of the human genome have a pedigree that is at present too complex to untangle. _
Unlike most pairs of chromosomes, the X and Y do not exchange segments of DNA between generations (except at their very tips). This is to ensure that the Y's most important gene, the one that makes a person male, never gets shuffled into the X chromosome. The Y chromosome is therefore passed down essentially unchanged from father to son, generation after generation. Mitochondrial DNA escapes shuffling through a different process. Mitochondria, cellular components that generate chemical energy, are former bacteria that were enslaved long ago by animal cells. They live in the main body of the cell, outside the nucleus that holds the chromosomes. When the sperm fuses with the egg, all the sperm's mitochondria are destroyed, leaving the fertilized egg equipped with only the mother's mitochondria. Because of this arrangement, mitochondria are bequeathed unchanged from mother to child (and a man's mitochondria are not passed on to his children).64 In addition to their exempt status, the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA each have a special and surprising property of uniqueness. All men in the world today carry the same Y chromosome, and both men and women carry the same mitochondria. All of today's Y chromosomes were in herited from the same, single source, a Y chromosome carried by an individual male who belonged to, or lived slightly before, the ancestral human population. The same is true of mitochondrial DNA; everyone carries the same mitochondrial DNA because all are copies of the same original, the mitochondrial DNA belonging to a single woman.
The metaphor is hard to avoid—this is Adam's Y chromosome, and Eve's mitochondrial DNA. The ancestral human population, of course, included many Adams and Eves, indeed about 2,500 of each if the geneticists' calculations are to be believed. So how did it come about that just one man bequeathed his Y chromosome to the whole world and one woman her mitochondria?
It's a curious fact of genetics that one version of a gene, especially in small populations, can displace all the other existing versions of the same gene in just a few generations, through a purely random process called genetic drift. Consider how this might work among surnames, which are passed on from father to son just like Y chromosomes. Suppose a hundred families are living on an island, each with a different surname. In the first generation, many of those families will have only daughters or no children at all. So in just one generation, all those families' surnames (and accompanying Y chromosomes) will go extinct. Assuming no new male settlers arrive on the island, the same unavoidable winnowing will happen each generation until only one surname (and Y chromosome) is left.
This is what has happened with the human Y chromosome. Every Y chromosome that exists today is a copy of the same original, carried by a single individual in the ancestral human population. The Y chromosomes of all the other Adams have perished at some point along the way when their owners had no sons.
But despite all being copies of the same original, Y chromosomes are not identical. Over the generations, mutations—the switch of one of the four kinds of DNA units for another—have built up on the Y. The mutations are harmless but serve the invaluable purpose for geneticists of assigning the owners of Y chromosomes to different male lineages. The reason is that once a man has acquired a novel mutation in his Y chromosome, all his sons will carry that mutation, and no one else will. If one of the sons has a second mutation, all of his descendants will carry the two mutations. Each new muta tion thus creates a fork on the family tree—between those who carry it and those who don't—and stands at the head of all the lineages beneath it.
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