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Christine MacPherson

Modern Human Origins

ANTH 1020

Modern Human Origins


The debate of modern human origins has been ongoing for at least the
last century. The two main theories that are discussed by scientists are
Regional Continuity and Replacement. Regional Continuity is built on the
assumption that various forms of early hominids such as homo
neanderthalensis and homo sapiens interbred and, over time, evolved into
modern humans we see today. The Replacement theory hypothesizes that
modern human origins can be traced back to a single common African
ancestor. Some anthropologists refer to this single ancestor as Eve. (1)
According to the Regional Continuity theory, there are multiple points
of origin for modern humans. The evolution of modern humans is thought to
have occurred during the Middle Pleistocene. During this period, there was
more diversity within these early hominid populations than what exists today.
Europe was mostly populated by homo neanderthalensis, Africa and the
Middle East by homo sapiens, and other related groups in Asia. The theory is
built on the concept that there was a fair amount of interbreeding between
these early groups of hominids, which eventually led to the speciation of
modern humans. (2,3)
However, the Regional Continuity theory does not account for the fact
that as of around 30,000 years ago, there was a sudden drop in the variation
between hominids. Neanderthals and other variations of hominids seemingly

Christine MacPherson

Modern Human Origins

ANTH 1020

drop off the fossil record, replaced by modern humans. Critics of the theory
claim that there would not have been enough interbreeding to prevent
speciation between the geographically isolated groups. (2,3)
The theory also does not account for the fact that we currently have one very
closely related species roaming the planet modern humans. It has been
stated that it would be an evolutionary miracle for modern humans to have
branched off as early as the Regional Continuity theory suggests and for the
worlds populations to have remained so similar. Though there are certainly
variations within our species, it would be expected that, given the amount of
geographical isolation, modern human populations throughout the world
would not have remained so similar since the Middle Pleistocene. (1)
The Replacement theory, however, is built on filling in the holes left by
the Regional Continuity theory. According to this second theory, modern
humans arose out of a common African ancestor fairly recently, between
50,000 to 500,000 years ago (usually estimated to be around 200,000 years
ago). This common African ancestor is hypothesized to be of the earliest
forms of modern humans and had already undergone speciation, which
meant there could have been no interbreeding between modern humans and
other hominids during the Pleistocene Era. (1)
Around 30,000 years ago, diversity in hominid populations diminished.
The Replacement theory explained this sudden lack in diversity with the
hypothesis that modern humans migrated out of Africa. Eventually, modern

Christine MacPherson

Modern Human Origins

ANTH 1020

humans could be found on nearly every continent, replacing the other


hominid species in Europe and Australasia. Evidence of matching mtDNA
between modern humans and a common African ancestor strongly supports
this theory. (4)
However, critics of the Replacement theory state that the theory has
failed to explain the evidence of Neanderthal genes that can be observed in
modern humans today. Native European populations still share genes from
the homo neanderthalensis genome, while native African populations do not.
This suggests that there must have been instances of interbreeding between
hominid populations, or at least between Neanderthals and modern humans,
about 1%-4%. (4)
Some say that the Regional Continuity model and the Replacement
model are irreconcilable. However, neither party can completely discount the
archaeological and biological evidence for an African origin. Furthermore, if
the Replacement theory is modified to account for some interbreeding
between hominids, a partial replacement theory appears to be the most
viable. Although a strict Replacement theory does not account for
interbreeding between hominids, the partial replacement theory
hypothesizes that there were small amounts of interbreeding, since nonnative African populations share 1-4% of their DNA, whereas native African
populations share an insubstantial amount, if any. This is further evidence of
African origin of modern humans. A partial replacement theory still keeps the

Christine MacPherson

Modern Human Origins

ANTH 1020

basic concept that hominid populations were largely replaced by modern


humans from Africa around 30,000 years ago, but acknowledges the
substantial evidence that other hominids have contributed to the modern
human genome. (1)
Although there is evidence for and loopholes discounting both main
theories, the Replacement theory if slightly modified appears to reconcile
most of these inconsistencies and create a more sound theory.

References
1. The Origin and Dispersal of Modern Humans.
<http://anthropology.msu.edu/iss220fs12/files/2012/08/understanding_humans_ch12.pdf>
2. Johansen, Donald. Origins of Modern Humans: Regional or Out of
Africa? Action Bioscience, May 2001.
<http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/johanson.html>
3. Frayer, David. Theories of Modern Human Origins: The
Paleontological Test. American Anthropologist, 1993.
<http://scholar.google.com/scholar_url?
url=http://www.academia.edu/download/31431721/Paleontological_
testAA.pdf&hl=en&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm1xpmgXEc_cD90ETSyPzSeVC
pHIoQ&nossl=1&oi=scholarr>
4. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Ancient DNA and
Neanderthals.
<http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/ancient-dna-andneanderthals>