Climate shifts triggered modern humans’ first migrations out of their Southern African homeland

A landmark study pinpoints the birthplace of modern humans in southern Africa and suggests how past climate shifts drove their first migration.

A study has concluded that the earliest ancestors of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) emerged in a southern African ‘homeland’ around 200 thousand years ago and thrived there for 70 thousand years, until changes in Africa’s climate triggered the first human exploration. This migration event contributed to the development of humans’ genetic, ethnic and cultural diversity as we know it today.  

The breakthrough findings were published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

DNA as a time capsule for early human history 

“It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200 thousand years ago. What has long been debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors,” says study lead Professor Vanessa Hayes from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and University of Sydney, and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria. 

“Mitochondrial DNA acts like a time-capsule of our ancestral mothers, accumulating changes slowly over generations. Comparing the complete DNA code, or mitogenome, from different individuals provides information on how closely they are related.”

In their study, Professor Hayes and her colleagues collected blood samples to establish a comprehensive catalogue of modern human’s earliest mitogenomes from the so-called ‘L0’ lineage. “Our work would not have been possible without the generous contributions of local communities and study participants in Namibia and South Africa, which allowed us to uncover rare and new L0 sub-branches,” says study author and public health Professor Riana Bornman from the University of Pretoria. 

“Merging 198 new, rare mitogenomes to the current database allowed us to refine the evolutionary tree of our earliest ancestral branches better than ever before,” says first author Dr Eva Chan from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, who led the phylogenetic analyses. 

By combining the L0 lineage timeline with the linguistic, cultural and geographic distributions of different sub-lineages, the study authors revealed that 200 thousand years ago, the firstHomo sapiens sapiensmaternal lineage emerged in a ‘homeland’ south of the Greater Zambezi River Basin region, which includes the entire expanse of northern Botswana into Namibia to the west and Zimbabwe to the east. 

A homeland perfect for life to thrive

Investigating existing geological, archeological and fossil evidence, geologist Dr Andy Moore, from Rhodes University, revealed that the homeland region once held Africa’s largest lake system, Lake Makgadikgadi. 

“Prior to modern human emergence, the lake had begun to drain due to shifts in underlying tectonic plates. This would have created, a vast wetland, which is known to be one of the most productive ecosystems for sustaining life,” says Dr Moore.

Modern humans’ first migrations

The authors’ new evolutionary timelines suggest that the ancient wetland ecosystem provided a stable ecological environment for modern humans’ first ancestors to thrive for 70 thousand years.

“We observed significant genetic divergence in the modern humans’ earliest maternal sub-lineages, that indicates our ancestors migrated out of the homeland between 130 and 110 thousand years ago,” explains Professor Hayes. “The first migrants ventured northeast, followed by a second wave of migrants travelling southwest. A third population remained in the homeland until today.” 

“In contrast to the northeasterly migrants, the southwesterly explorers appear to flourish, experiencing steady population growth,” says Professor Hayes. The authors speculate that the success of this migration was most likely a result of adaptation to marine foraging, which is further supported by extensive archaeological evidence along the southern tip of Africa.

Climate effects 

To investigate what may have triggered these early human migrations, Professor Axel Timmermann and Dr. Sun-Seon Lee from the IBS Center for Climate Physics at Pusan National University analyzed climate supercomputer model simulations and geological data which capture Southern Africa’s climate history of the past 250 thousand years. 

“Our simulations suggest that the slow wobble of Earth’s axis changes summer solar radiation in the Southern Hemisphere, leading to periodic shifts in rainfall across southern Africa,” says Professor Timmermann, co-corresponding author of the study and Director of the IBS Center for Climate Physics. “These shifts in climate would have opened green, vegetated corridors, first 130 thousand years ago to the northeast, and then around 110 thousand years ago to the southwest, allowing our earliest ancestors to migrate away from the homeland for the first time.”

“These first migrants left behind a homeland population,” remarks Professor Hayes. “Eventually adapting to the drying lands, maternal descendants of the homeland population can be found in the greater Kalahari region today.”

This study uniquely combined the disciplines of genetics, geology and climatic physics to rewrite our earliest human history.

Figure 1Reconstructing the phylogenetic tree of L0 sub-lineage from blood samples of volunteer study participants in Southern Africa. The L0 group represents the oldest branch of our common human genetic history. The genomic analysis is based on the DNA encapsulated in little structures (mitochondria) inside the cells. DNA sequencing from many individuals allows researchers to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of specific genetic lineages – in this case of the L0 group. Estimating the time of genetic divergence from the phylogenetic tree allowed researchers to reconstruct the timeline of past migration events.

Figure 2Anatomically modern humans lived in a vast wetland in the Kalahari region from 200-130 thousand years ago. There is no evidence for migration events out of this original homeland during this time. Around 130 thousand years ago, with earth’s orbit and solar radiation changing (upper panel), increased precipitation and vegetation northeast of the homeland (right panel) allowed to leave the homeland area (middle panel). About 15 thousand years later a green corridor opened to the southwest which allowed to migrate towards the west coast of Southern Africa, where they lived as coastal foragers. One group stayed in the homeland, where their descendants (Kalahari Khoesan) still live today.

Notes for editors

– References

JEva K.F. Chan, Axel Timmermann, Benedetta F. Baldi, Andy E. Moore, Ruth J. Lyons, Sun-Seon Lee, Anton Kalsbeek, Desiree C. Petersen, Hannes Rautenbach, Hagen E.A. Förtsch, Riana Bornman. Vanessa M. Hayes. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1714-1

– Media Contact

For further information or to request media assistance, please contact: Kyungmi Park, IBS Center for Climate Physics, Pusan National University (+82-51-510-7750, kyungmi@pusan.ac.kr) 

– About the Institute for Basic Science (IBS)

IBS was founded in 2011 by the government of the Republic of Korea with the sole purpose of driving forward the development of basic science in South Korea. IBS has launched 30 research centers as of January 2019. There are nine physics, two mathematics, six chemistry, seven life science, one earth science, and five interdisciplinary research centers.

– About ICCP

The IBS Center for Climate Physics (ICCP) seeks to expand the frontiers of earth system science by conducting cutting edge research into climate dynamics and utilizing high-performance computer simulations, with the goal of improving decadal Earth system forecasts and long-term projections.