Number of ancestral human species: a molecular perspective

Darren Curnoe, Alan Thorne

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    Despite the remarkable developments m molecular biology over the past three decades, anthropological genetics has had only limited impact on systematics in human evolution. Genetics offers the opportunity to objectively test taxonomies based on morphology and may be used to supplement conventional approaches to hominid systematics. Our analyses, examining chromosomes and 46 estimates of genetic distance, indicate there may have been only around 4 species on the direct line to modern humans and 5 species in total. This contrasts with current taxonomies recognising up to 23 species. The genetic proximity of humans and chimpanzees has been used to suggest these species are con-generic. Our analysis of genetic distances between them is consistent with this proposal. It is time that chimpanzees, living humans and all fossil humans be classified m Homo. The creation of new genera can no longer be a solution to the complexities of fossil morphologies. Published genetic distances between common chimpanzees and bonobos, along with evidence for interbreeding, suggest they should be assigned to a single species. The short distance between humans and chimpanzees also places a strict limit on the number of possible evolutionary ?side branches? that might be recognised on the human lineage. All fossil taxa were genetically very close to each other and likely to have been below congeneric genetic distances seen for many mammals. Our estimates of genetic divergence suggest that periods of around 2 million years are required to produce sufficient genetic distance to represent speciation. Therefore, Neanderthals and so-called H. erectus were genetically so close to contemporary H. sapiens they were unlikely to have been separate species. Thus, it is likely there was only one species of human (H. sapiens) for most of the last 2 million years. We estimate the divergence time of H. sapiens from 16 generic distances to be around 1.7 Ma which is consistent with evidence for the earliest migration out of Africa. These findings call into question the mitochondrial «African Eve» hypothesis based on a far more recent origin for H. sapiens and show that humans did not go through a bottleneck in their recent evolutionary history. Given the large offset in evolutionary rates of molecules and morphology seen in human evolution, Homo species are likely to be characterised by high levels of morphological variation and low levels of genetic variability. Thus, molecular data suggest the limits for intraspecific morphological variation used by many palaeoanthropologists have been set too low. The role of phenotypic plasticity has been greatly underestimated in human evolution. We call into question the use of mtDNA for studies of human evolution. This DNA is under strong selection, which violates the assumption of selective neutrality. This issue should be addressed by geneticists, including a reassessment of its use for molecular clocks. There is a need for greater cooperation between palaeoanthropologists and anthropological geneticists to better understand human evolution and to bring palaeoanthropology into the mainstream of evolutionary biology.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)201-224
    JournalHomo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


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