Darwin's Theory Meets DNA Testing
As early as 1871, Charles Darwin wrote about the origin of man in Africa. While this was originally a hypothesis, fossils were later discovered that bolstered this theory and gave way to an increasing number of hominid fossils found throughout South Africa.
Paleoanthropologists have gathered, recorded, and studied thousands of fossils of early man, also known more specifically as hominin fossils. Most researchers have always agreed that Africa was a central and essential component in the development of the modern Homo Sapiens, but just how relevant has always been a question.
The Timeline of the Hominin Species
To understand the challenges of tracing back the hominin evolution, there are several important factors to keep in mind. One of the most amazing is the non-linear nature of the evolution, with multiple species in existence at the same time.
Some important times of change include:
- 9 to 6 million years ago – first hominins evolved with smaller canine teeth and walking upright on two legs as opposed to the apes found at that time.
- 3.5 to 3 million years ago – hominins moved from woodlands to grasslands in response to the changes in the climate in Africa. Stone tools first appeared approximately this time.
- 2.5 to 2 million years ago – the genus Homo appeared and traveled from Africa to Europe and Asia
- 300,000 years ago – early ancestors of Homo sapiens early evolved along with other Homo species that died out.
The Asia or Africa Debate
While early fossils and records tended to support the theory of Darwin and others, even up to the 20th century, there was considerable debate about the location of the first humans. Those evolutionists supporting the theory of Asia as the origin of Homo sapiens hypothesized that tectonic plate activity and the fact that gibbons, the closest human relative, pointed out these two facts were both focused in the Central Asia area.
In 1912, fossils were found in Piltdown, England. This finding of early human-like creatures and other remains of extinct animals suggested a European area of travel very early in the evolution. At almost the same time, a small skull found in rocks from Taung, South Africa, indicated this may have been a transition from ape to human, with teeth more closely related to a human than that of the fossils found in England.
It is now recognized that racial biases with early scientists dismissed the Taung Child skeleton and put additional emphasis on the fossils found throughout Europe and Asia. The debate continued for decades, with new discoveries swinging the tide of scientific belief.
The Impact of DNA
Thanks to early studies in DNA in the 1980s, researchers learned that African populations had the greatest genetic diversity. From this data, it was estimated that the first humans were from Africa and lived about 200,000 years ago.
While there is some interpretation of genetic data, the science, fossil records, and DNA support the idea that early H. sapiens came from Africa.
Furthermore, the DNA indicates there was movement in different directions, with groups leaving Africa, mating with other hominins, and then moving back and forth and within populations and geographic regions. This is now the accepted theory, which is why DNA testing provides so many surprising results.
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