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Humans almost went extinct as population declined to only 1,280 people

For years, scientists have been puzzled by an elusive gap in the African and Eurasian fossil records of modern humans. But a recent breakthrough by a global team of researchers has offered tantalizing insights into a chapter of human history that had remained in the shadows.

Drawing from the expertise of specialists from China, Italy, and the United States, the research applied an innovative method, FitCoal, to get to the heart of the mystery.

FitCoal, which stands for fast infinitesimal time coalescent process, allowed these researchers to make demographic inferences using the genomic sequences of 3,154 modern-day humans.

Modern human population fell to 1,280

What they found was nothing short of astonishing. Our early human ancestors experienced a staggering bottleneck event that left only about 1,280 breeding individuals to carry forth the torch of humanity for a staggering 117,000 years.

Yun-Xin Fu, a theoretical population geneticist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and a senior author on the study, emphasizes the significance of this methodological advancement: “The fact that FitCoal can detect the ancient severe bottleneck with even a few sequences represents a breakthrough.”

The findings were published online in Science on August 31, 2023. They reveal that during this bottleneck, early human ancestors faced a colossal loss of life and, consequently, a devastating loss in genetic diversity.

Senior author and anthropologist Giorgio Manzi of Sapienza University of Rome sheds light on the bigger picture. He stated, “The gap in the African and Eurasian fossil records can be explained by this bottleneck in the Early Stone Age as chronologically. It coincides with this proposed time period of significant loss of fossil evidence.”

How did this happen?

What caused such a catastrophic downturn in the human ancestral population? The prevailing theories revolve around the harsh whims of climate. The glaciation events of the period would have caused plummeting temperatures, severe droughts, and a consequential loss of species that early humans might have depended on for sustenance.

This was no brief calamity. Spanning the early to middle Pleistocene era, this event is believed to have wiped out an estimated 65.85% of the genetic diversity we might otherwise see today. And yet, from this extreme adversity, a potential silver lining emerged.

The convergence of two ancestral chromosomes gave birth to what we now recognize as chromosome 2 in modern humans. This discovery suggests a tantalizing hint about the last common ancestor of Denisovans, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens.

Yi-Hsuan Pan is a senior author on the study and an expert in evolutionary and functional genomics at East China Normal University. He is already looking forward to the avenues this opens up.

He stated, “The novel finding opens a new field in human evolution because it evokes many questions, such as the places where these individuals lived, how they overcame the catastrophic climate changes, and whether natural selection during the bottleneck has accelerated the evolution of the human brain.”

Stage is set for future research projects

With this knowledge in hand, the stage is set for scientists to delve deeper into the period between 930,000 and 813,000 years ago. The journey of this small, resilient group of humans, surviving against the odds in undoubtedly challenging conditions, offers a story of tenacity and evolution.

There’s speculation that the discovery and control of fire, coupled with the earth’s shifting climate, might have been the catalysts for a rapid population boom around 813,000 years ago.

LI Haipeng is a theoretical population geneticist and computational biologist at the Shanghai Institute of Nutrition and Health of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He emphasizes that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

He said, “These findings are just the start. Future goals with this knowledge aim to paint a more complete picture of human evolution during this Early to Middle Pleistocene transition period, which will in turn continue to unravel the mystery that is early human ancestry and evolution.”

As researchers gear up to explore these new horizons, one thing is certain. Every answer will indeed lead to more questions. The quest to understand our ancient lineage continues.

More about modern human evolution

Humans, as we know them today, didn’t just appear overnight. Our evolution represents a dynamic journey spanning millions of years. Let’s dive into this fascinating tale.

It all began in Africa, where the first primates, our earliest ancestors, emerged. These creatures were small and relied heavily on trees for survival. Over time, they evolved, giving rise to the group known as hominins. This species was more closely related to us than to chimps and bonobos.

Walking upright

Around 7 million years ago, a pivotal change occurred. Certain hominins began to walk on two legs, a trait we call bipedalism. Ardipithecus ramidus, a species from this era, showcases this significant shift in locomotion.

Fast forward to 4 million years ago, and we meet Australopithecus, a genus that had both ape-like and human-like traits. The most famous member, ‘Lucy’, serves as a crucial link in understanding how our ancestors slowly transitioned.

Crafting and using tools

By 2.5 million years ago, early humans started to craft tools, marking a monumental leap in cognitive abilities. The genus Homo emerged, and with it came Homo habilis, our direct ancestor known for its refined tool-making skills.

The plot thickened around 1.9 million years ago with the appearance of Homo erectus. This species had a larger brain and used even more sophisticated tools. They became the first to leave Africa, spreading into parts of Asia and Europe.

Neanderthals, our close cousins, entered the scene around 400,000 years ago. Found across Europe and Asia, they coexisted and even interbred with modern humans before becoming extinct around 40,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens (modern humans) arrive

Homo sapiens, or modern humans, evolved roughly 300,000 years ago in Africa. Armed with unparalleled cognitive abilities, we developed language, art, religion, and complex tools. Our species ventured out of Africa 70,000 years ago, eventually colonizing almost every corner of the globe.

The journey of human evolution is far from linear. It’s a story of survival, adaptation, and innovation. Today, as we gaze into our past, we better understand our place in the vast tapestry of life and appreciate the countless transformations that brought us here.

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