When a group of modern humans began their exodus out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, Egypt may have been the last stop.
By testing the genetic makeup of different African populations, researchers were able to follow humanity’s first steps into Eurasia. According to a study published today in the "American Journal of Human Genetics," genetic similarities between Egyptians and Eurasians suggests that Pleistocene emigrants travelled through Egypt.
The “out-of-Africa” theory is the most widely recognized model for the movement of modern humans into Eurasia. It postulates that, at some point after the evolution of the first anatomically modern humans in Africa, there was a large migration out of the continent. Paleoanthropologists estimate that the move occurred between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago, but disagree on whether there was a single exodus or many. The prehistoric travelers, who may have used land bridges and simple rafts to cross, became the first modern human populations in Europe and Asia. (Fossil evidence suggests that Neanderthals already occupied the continent).
Recent studies have adopted the view that modern humans originated in Ethiopia and left Africa through Bab-el-Mandeb, a strait linking the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula. But an international study, led by University of Cambridge researcher Luca Pagani, may prove otherwise.
Dr. Pagani and colleagues gathered genetic information from 100 Egyptians and 25 individuals from each of five Ethiopian populations. If the route to Eurasia passed through East Africa, Ethiopians should be more genetically similar to Eurasians than Egyptians are. But according to Pagani, the opposite is true.
“In our research, we generated the first comprehensive set of unbiased genomic data from Northeast Africans and observed, after controlling for recent migrations, a higher genetic similarity between Egyptians and Eurasians than between Ethiopians and Eurasians,” Pagani said in a press release.
In other words, prehistoric humans probably took a northern route out of Africa, traveling through Egypt in the process. If correct, Pagani’s findings could improve the understanding of our evolutionary background, both geographical and cultural. And the genomic data collected by Pagani and his colleagues will be made freely available, benefiting future anthropological and medical studies.
“The most exciting consequence of our results is to have unveiled an episode of the evolutionary past of all Eurasians, therefore potentially improving the knowledge of billions of people on their deep biological history,” Pagani told LiveScience.