map of the journey out of Africa

Genetics of Human Evolution

Until very recently, it was thought that no deep understanding could ever be gained about the 5 million years of evolution from primate to physically modern human and the 45,000 years of prehistory that followed this evolution.

Paleoanthropology and archaeology, relying on physical evidence unearthed in fossil bones, skulls, and stone tools can only tell us so much about an ancestral population that vanished without a trace.

Geneticists, however, following a genome trail that leads back in time, can now fill in unexpected detail. The map above tells a new story about the migration of human populations from our common beginnings in Africa based on human genetics.

Using haplogroups of human mitochondrial DNA—genetic material inherited from a single maternal parent dating back thousands of years—researchers trace the matrilineal inheritance of modern humans back to our origins in Africa and our subsequent spread across the globe.

The woman at the root of all the known haplogroups was the most recent common ancestor of all living humans. We call her Mitochondrial Eve.

Known Haplogroups

A, B, C, CZ, D, E, F, G, H, pre-HV, HV, I, J, pre-JT, JT, K, L0, L1, L2, L3, L4, L5, L6, L7, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, U, UK, V, W, X, Y, and Z

Follow the genetic trail of our early ancestors out of Africa. You can also order a kit to have your own DNA sequenced and discover your own deep ancestry.

Ancient jaw bone

No Bones About It: Scientists Recover Ancient DNA From Cave Dirt

Gina Kolata, New York Times

From teaspoons of clay and sand scraped from the floors of caves — without turning up a single bone – German researchers have managed to isolate ancient human DNA, enabling new insights without relying on fossil finds.

Lice and human evolution - PBS video

Watch: Lice and Human Evolution

PBS NOVA ScienceNOW

Watch the amazing story of how the genetic history of lice gives us clues to mysteries of our own evolution.

Skulls

Study Finds Humans Still Evolving, and Quickly

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

The pace of human evolution has been increasing at a rate 100 times faster than when our ancestors first began spreading through Europe, Asia, and Africa 40,000 years ago.

Featured Book

Before the Dawn

Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Nicholas Wade

New York Times science writer explores humanity’s origins as revealed by the latest genetic science.

Further Reading

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