Figure The Y Chromosome Family Tree And Its Geographical Distribution

Although all men carry the same Y chromosome, mutations have gradually built up on it. The mutations allow men to be assigned to different lineages, depending on which set of mutations they carry. Because the mutations accumulated while the ancestral people were spreading through the world, different lineages of men are found in different regions of the world.

All male lineages outside sub-Saharan Africa carry the Y chromosome mutation known as M168. Men who carry the M173 mutation may have been the first modern humans to enter Europe 45,000 years ago, founding what archaeologists call the Aurignacian culture. Bearers of M170 are thought to have brought the Gravettian culture that succeeded the Aurignacian 28,000 years ago. The M242 mutation occurred just before the first humans crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia to the Americas.

The women's lineages, like the men's, have all turned out to be branches from a single root, the mitochondrial DNA possessed by a single woman who lived in or before the ancestral human population. The mitochondrial Eve appears to have lived considerably earlier than the Y chromosomal Adam—about 150,000 years ago—but that may reflect the difficulty of dating mitochondrial DNA, which gathers mutations more rapidly than does the Y chromosome. The mitochondrial genealogy of humankind has three main branches, known as L1, L2 and L3. L1 and L2 are confined to Africans who live south of the Sahara. The L3 branch gave rise to a lineage known as M, and it was the descendants of M who left Africa. The Y and mitochondrial data can be made to yield another vital piece of information—the "effective" size of the ancestral population. The effective population is a statistical concept inferred by population geneticists from the amount of variation seen in samples of DNA. It is a large fraction of the real population size—for humans, often considered to be about half.66 The effective size of the ancestral human population has long been estimated to have been around 10,000 individuals, but recent calculations, which mitigate a confounding factor in the earlier estimates, suggest the actual number may have been even smaller. An estimate based on the Y chromosome suggests an effective population size of just 1,000 men of reproductive age.67 Assuming the same number of women, this implies an "effective population" of 2,000, which is equivalent to a census-size population of a mere 4,000 individuals, or say 5,000 in round numbers.

The first two branches of the Y chromosome genealogy, whose bearers are found only in Africa, have many sub-branches. This suggests the ancestral human population soon became quite spread out and diverse. There are other hints in the pattern of mutation that many Y chromosome lineages that once existed are now extinct. The ancestral population, in other words, may have suffered several calamities with widespread loss of male life.68

Because foragers lived in groups, generally of 150 people or so who may have liked to trade with neighboring groups, a population as small as 4,000 or 5,000 people is unlikely to have been distributed over the whole continent of Africa. It would probably have had a much smaller range—"perhaps the size of Swaziland or Rhode Island" according to one estimate.69 The smaller the area, the more possible that at one time a single language was spoken. Archaeologists have not yet located this ancestral homeland. Given that its inhabitants would have been hunters and gatherers, they may have left little sign of their presence.

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