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900,000 Years Ago: How Our Ancestors Narrowly Avoided Extinction


Introduction

An ancestral population of humans was reduced to very low numbers, according to a genetic analysis. The population may have plummeted to as low as 1300 around 900,000 years ago. This study raises questions about our ancestral species and the factors that contributed to the bottleneck.

The Concept of Population Bottlenecks

Population bottlenecks occur when an existing population is reduced in size, resulting in a sudden loss of genetic diversity. They can be caused by catastrophes or when a small number of individuals found a new population. Bottlenecks have occurred throughout human evolution.

Uncovering Ancient Bottlenecks

Looking for reductions in genetic diversity can help identify past bottlenecks. However, ancient bottlenecks are harder to detect than recent ones. Researchers developed a new method to estimate changes in population size and applied it to the genomes of over 3000 people from around the world.

The Findings

According to the analysis, the population of our ancestors fell by 98% around 930,000 years ago, reaching a low point of around 1280 breeding individuals. The population remained very low until around 815,000 years ago. The cause of this bottleneck is still debatable.

Possible Explanations

  • Climate Change: The researchers suggest that global cooling and severe drought in Africa and Eurasia could explain the scarcity of the hominin fossil record during this time.
  • Continued Human Habitation: Other experts argue that evidence of continued human habitation during this period contradicts the idea of a global event and supports localized effects only.
  • Speciation Event: Another explanation is that the bottleneck reflects a speciation event, where a small group split from other early humans after a specific chromosomal fusion.

Expert Opinions

Independent experts have differing opinions regarding the conclusions of the study. Some suggest that the bottleneck may be real, while others emphasize the need for more evidence to confirm the findings and better understand this time period.

Conclusion

The genetic analysis points to a significant population bottleneck in our ancestral history around 900,000 years ago. The cause and implications of this bottleneck remain subjects of debate among researchers. Further studies and ancient DNA data are needed to shed more light on this period of human evolution.

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