A new book, The Journey of Man, demonstrates how recent advances in genetics, particularly those involving the Y-chromosome, allow us to follow the arc of human migration out of Africa, our ancestral home.
Although Neanderthals and other hominids related to Homo sapiens date back hundreds of thousands of years, the book's author, geneticist Spencer Wells, shows that our origins are much more recent. Presenting the work of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Richard Lewontin, and other eminent researchers, Wells argues convincingly that all men on earth (the Y-chromosome is passed only from father to son) can trace their roots to a particular male who lived in Africa, almost 60,000 years ago.
Likewise, all humans on earth can trace their lineage through our maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA back to a particular woman, who lived in Africa roughly 150,000 years ago. This "Adam" is my great-grandfather roughly 2500 times removed and this "Eve" my great grandmother roughly 6500 times removed. (Yours too, so we're all distant cousins.)
In coming to these conclusions, Wells relies upon a variety of mathematical techniques, ranging from statistical tests to measure the similarities between and among the genomes of present-day populations to carbon dating and other methods commonly employed at archeological sites.
The probability of branching processes lends additional support as does empirical research on the world's various ethnic groups. Most revealing is the use of the rate at which random mutations naturally occur to infer the paths of our ancestors around the globe.
Wells employs a culinary metaphor to clarify the notion of a genetic Eve, whose existence was long disputed by those who believed that mankind developed independently in several locations around the world. Altering Wells' metaphor a little, let's imagine a small village that has been inhabited for millennia. Imagine further that we go way back in time and note that the few families in the village use different recipes for their primary meal, and that the recipes are handed down from mother to daughter only.
Very complex, the recipes can be modified in hundreds of ways — a different ingredient here, longer cooking time there, etc. — and every once in a while a daughter makes a tiny change in her mother's recipe, which she then passes down to her daughter(s). Sometimes because of accident, disease, or simply a line's not having any daughters, a family's recipe and its variants die out. In fact, let's assume that all but one of the original recipes and their variants disappear. Thus in the village we can now find only one of the dozen original recipes, dating back X thousand years, and its many variants.
If for the village we substitute Africa, and for recipes we substitute the human genome, the surviving original recipe is analogous to the genetic makeup of African Eve since all the surviving recipes derive from it just as we all can trace all our mitochondrial DNA back to a particular woman who lived 150,000 years ago.
And just as our mitochondrial DNA is inherited only through our mothers, the male Y-chromosome is passed only from fathers to sons. So let's invent another just-so story about, say, elaborate hunting rituals that are passed down from father to son with very rare changes. We again go back to a time when there were very few families and hence few different hunting rituals.