Number of ancestral human species: a molecular perspective
Despite the remarkable developments in 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 congeneric. 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 in 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. sapiensfrom 16 genetic 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.
Evidence for a genetic discontinuity between Neandertals and 24,000-year-old anatomically modern Europeans
During the late Pleistocene, early anatomically modern humans coexisted in Europe with the anatomically archaic Neandertals for some thousand years. Under the recent variants of the multiregional model of human evolution, modern and archaic forms were different but related populations within a single evolving species, and both have contributed to the gene pool of current humans. Conversely, the Out-of-Africa model considers the transition between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans as the result of a demographic replacement, and hence it predicts a genetic discontinuity between them. Following the most stringent current standards for validation of ancient DNA sequences, we typed the mtDNA hypervariable region I of two anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens individuals of the Cro-Magnon type dated at about 23 and 25 thousand years ago. Here we show that the mtDNAs of these individuals fall well within the range of variation of today’s humans, but differ sharply from the available sequences of the chronologically closer Neandertals. This discontinuity is difficult to reconcile with the hypothesis that both Neandertals and early anatomically modern humans contributed to the current European gene pool.
A Reanalysis of the Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Sequences Recovered from Neandertal Bones
Recent reports analyzing mitochondrial DNA sequences from Neandertal bones have claimed that Neandertals and modern humans are different species. The phylogenetic analyses carried out in these articles did not take into account the high substitution rate variation among sites observed in the human mitochondrial D-loop region and also lack an estimation of the parameters of the nucleotide substitution model. The separate phylogenetic position of Neandertals is not supported when these factors are considered. Our analysis shows that Neandertal-Human and Human-Human pairwise distance distributions overlap more than what previous studies suggested. We also show that the most ancient Neandertal HVI region is the most divergent when compared with modern human sequences. However, the opposite would be expected if the sequence had not been modified since the death of the specimen. Such incongruence is discussed in the light of diagenetic modifications in ancient Neandertal DNA sequences.