Human ancestors nearly went extinct 900,000 years ago

Human ancestors in Africa were pushed to the brink of extinction around 900,000 years ago, a study shows. The work, published in Science, suggests a drastic reduction in the population of our ancestors well before our species, Homo sapiens, emerged. The population of breeding individuals was reduced to just 1,280 and didn’t expand again for another 117,000 years.

Nick Ashton, an archaeologist at the British Museum in London, who wrote a related perspective, says he was intrigued by the tiny size of the population. This would imply that it occupied a very localized area with good social cohesion for it to survive,” he says. 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.

This period was part of the Early-Middle Pleistocene transition — a time of drastic climate change, when glacial cycles became longer and more intense. In Africa, this led to long periods of drought. Li says that the changing climate might have wiped out human ancestors and forced new human species to emerge. Eventually, these might have evolved into the last common ancestor of modern humans and our extinct relatives, the Denisovans and Neanderthals.

Around 813,000 years ago, the population of pre-humans began to swell again. How our ancestors managed to survive, and what allowed them to flourish once more, remains unclear, says Ziqian Hao, a population geneticist at the Shandong First Medical University and Shandong Academy of Medical Sciences in Jinan, and a co-author of the paper. However, he says that the bottleneck is likely to have had a crucial impact on human genetic diversity, driving many important features of modern humans, such as brain size. He estimates that up to two-thirds of genetic diversity was lost. It represents a key period of time during the evolution of humans. So there are many important questions to be answered,” he says.


September 1, 2023