In today’s piece, we will take you back on a journey to a time nearly 900,000 years, deep within the heart of Africa, also known as the Cradle of Humanity, where humanity found itself on the brinks of extinction. A story about about a genetic bottleneck.
To those questioning why our story takes place in Africa, well, here’s your answer. Africa, or as I said earlier, the Cradle of Humanity, is actually the continent where the earliest hominids, human ancestors, lived and evolved. Not so surprising since Africa IS the Mother Continent.
The revelation, uncovered by Science’s genetic research, wrote another wild chapter in a never-ending epic of human evolution. One of the main coverers of the news is Haipeng Li, a population geneticist from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
According to Li, “about 98.7% of human ancestors were lost,” adding that our forefathers weathered a heavy, and detrimental, population bottleneck long before the emergence of homo sapiens.
So, we’re talking about a population crash that reduced the populace count to 1,280 individuals, marking 1.3% of the former population, which is insane. If we are to stay on the rounding numbers table, this means that 98.7% was wiped from the face of the earth.
But that’s not the whole story. The most mind-boggling part is that they stayed at that small number for 117,000 years. So, I think they’re the first ones to play the survival game and actually, well, survive.
Following his uncovering, Li exclaimed that this provides a much clearer explanation of the chronological gap and why the fossil record between 950,000 and 650,000 years ago in Africa and Eurasia is so patchy.
In parallel, Nick Ashton, an archaeologist from the British Museum, was also perplexed by the population’s small number and how they actually managed to survive for so long.
To Ashton, this uncovering of species’ past events “would imply that it occupied a very localized area with good social cohesion for it to survive.”
“Of greater surprise is the estimated length of time that this small group survived. If this is correct, then one imagines that it would require a stable environment with sufficient resources and few stresses to the system,” Ashton added.
In the unraveling of this ancient mystery, intrigued scientists had to get creative, cooking up a new method to, simply put, reconstruct what was happening with ancient populations. What they did was look at genes in modern-day humans and built a family tree from that data, helping them understand a period about 800,000 to one million years ago, answering one of the biggest questions to the present day.
Then, around 813,000 years ago, the pre-human population started bouncing back. But how they managed to survive and thrive again is still a puzzle, says Ziqian Hao, another geneticist on the team. He thinks this bottleneck probably played a big role in shaping our genetic diversity and some key human traits, like, you guessed it, brain size. He figures up to two-thirds of our genetic diversity might’ve gone missing during that time.
It’s actually more complicated than that, but as I said earlier, ‘simply put.’
So, what does it really mean? Well, had this genetic bottleneck not occurred, our species, the world and our genetic diversity would be much different, and this also includes our cultural and technological challenges, survival strategies, species interactions, cultural and genetic isolation.
But the most significant repercussion has to be the effect on legacy for future generations. Had this population eventually thrived on a much bigger scale, it could’ve birthed a thriving new population of modern humans, and we would be far more technologically advanced than we are now.
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