September 30, 2004

Most recent common ancestor of living humans lived in 300BC

Nature 431, 562 - 566 (30 September 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02842

Modelling the recent common ancestry of all living humans


If a common ancestor of all living humans is defined as an individual who is a genealogical ancestor of all present-day people, the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for a randomly mating population would have lived in the very recent past1-3. However, the random mating model ignores essential aspects of population substructure, such as the tendency of individuals to choose mates from the same social group, and the relative isolation of geographically separated groups. Here we show that recent common ancestors also emerge from two models incorporating substantial population substructure. One model, designed for simplicity and theoretical insight, yields explicit mathematical results through a probabilistic analysis. A more elaborate second model, designed to capture historical population dynamics in a more realistic way, is analysed computationally through Monte Carlo simulations. These analyses suggest that the genealogies of all living humans overlap in remarkable ways in the recent past. In particular, the MRCA of all present-day humans lived just a few thousand years ago in these models. Moreover, among all individuals living more than just a few thousand years earlier than the MRCA, each present-day human has exactly the same set of genealogical ancestors.


These estimates would suggest, with the exchange of just one pair of migrants per generation between large panmictic populations of realistic size, that the MRCA appears in about the year 300 BC, and all modern individuals have identical ancestors by about 3,000 BC. Such estimates are extremely tentative, and the model contains several obvious sources of error, as it was motivated more by considerations of theoretical insight and tractability than by realism. Its main message is that substantial forms of population subdivision can still be compatible with very recent common ancestors.


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