Global demographic history inferred from mitogenomes

Open access Global demographic history of human populations inferred from whole mitochondrial genomes, by Miller, Manica, and Amos, Royal Society Open Science (2018).

Relevant excerpts (emphasis mine):


The Phase 3 sequence data from 20 populations, comprising five populations for each of the four main geographical regions of Europe, East Asia, South Asia and Africa, were downloaded from the 1000 Genomes Project website (, [8]), including whole mitochondrial genome data for 1999 individuals. We decided not to analyse populations from the Americas due to the region’s complex history of admixture [13,14].

The European populations were as follows: Finnish sampled in Finland (FIN); European Caucasians resident in Utah, USA (CEU); British in England and Scotland (GBR); an Iberian population from Spain (IBS) and Toscani from Italy (TSI). Representing East Asia were the Han Chinese in Beijing (CHB); Southern Han Chinese (CHS); Dai Chinese from Xishuangbanna, China (CDX); Kinh population from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (KHV) and Japanese from Tokyo (JPT). The South Asian populations were Punjabi Indians from Lahore, Pakistan (PJL); Gujarati Indians in Houston, USA (GIH) as well as Indian Telugu sampled in the UK (ITU); Bengali from Bangladesh (BEB) and Sri Lankan Tamil from the UK (STU). (…)


We analysed our mtDNA data with the extended Bayesian skyline plot (EBSP) method, a Bayesian, non-parametric technique for inferring past population size fluctuations from genetic data. Building on the previous Bayesian skyline plot (BSP) approach, EBSP uses a piecewise-linear model and Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods to reconstruct a populations’ demographic history [17] and is implemented in the software package BEAST v. 2.3.2 [11]. Alignments for each of the 20 populations were loaded separately into the Bayesian Evolutionary Analysis Utility tool (BEAUti v. 2.3.2) in NEXUS format.

Relationship between profile similarity and genetic distance, measured as Fst. Comparisons between regions, circles, are colour-coded: black ¼ AFR-EA; yellow ¼ AFR-EUR; blue ¼ AFR-SA; orange ¼ EUR-EA; green ¼ EA-SA; red ¼ EUR-SA. Comparisons within regions, squares, are coded: peach ¼ EUR; pink ¼ EA; dark blue ¼ EA; light blue ¼ AFR. Profile similarity is calculated as inferred size difference summed over 20 evenly spaced intervals (see Material and methods).

Regional demographic histories


The five European profiles are presented in figure 2. The four southerly populations all show profiles with a stable size up to approximately 14 ka followed by a sudden, rapid increase that becomes progressively less steep towards the present. There is also a north-south trend, with confidence intervals becoming broader towards the north, particularly for the oldest time-points. The Finnish population profile appears rather different, but this is to be expected both because it is so far north and because previous studies have identified Finns as a strong genetic outlier in Europe [19–22].

Inferred demographic histories of five European populations. Dotted line is the median estimate of Ne and the thin grey lines show the boundary of the 95% CPD interval. The x-axis represents time from the present in years and all plots are on the same scale. Map shows origins of sampled populations.

South Asia:

The five profiles for South Asia are shown in figure 3. All populations reveal a period of rapid growth approximately 45–40 ka which then slows. Near the present the two southerly populations, GIH and STU both show evidence of a decline. However, this may be due to these samples being drawn from populations no longer living on the subcontinent, with the downward trend capturing a bottleneck associated with moving to Europe/America, perhaps accentuated by the tendency for immigrant populations to group by region, religion and race [23].

Inferred South Asian population demographic histories. Dotted line is the median Ne estimate and the thin grey lines show the boundary of the 95% CPD intervals. The x-axis represents time from the present in thousands of years and all plots are on the same scale. The map shows location of sampled populations.


Paternal lineages mainly from migrants, maternal lineages mainly from local populations in Argentina

New paper (behind paywall) Genetic variation in populations from central Argentina based on mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA evidence, by García, Pauro, Bailliet, Bravi & Demarchi, J. Hum. Genet (2018) 63: 493–507.

Abstract (emphasis mine):

We present new data and analysis on the genetic variation of contemporary inhabitants of central Argentina, including a total of 812 unrelated individuals from 20 populations. Our goal was to bring new elements for understanding micro-evolutionary and historical processes that generated the genetic diversity of the region, using molecular markers of uniparental inheritance (mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome). Almost 76% of the individuals show mitochondrial lineages of American origin. The Native American haplogroups predominate in all surveyed localities, except in one. The larger presence of Eurasian maternal lineages were observed in the plains (Pampas) of the southeast, whereas the African lineages are more frequent in northern Córdoba. On the other hand, the analysis of 258 male samples reveals that 92% of them present Eurasian paternal lineages, 7% carry Native American haplogroups, and only 1% of the males show African lineages. The maternal lineages have high genetic diversity homogeneously distributed throughout central Argentina, probably as result of a recent common origin and sustained gene flow. Migratory events that occurred in colonial and recent times should have contributed to hiding any traces of differentiation that might have existed in the past. The analysis of paternal lineages showed also homogeneous distribution of the variation together with a drastic reduction of the native male population.

Maps showing continental mtDNA haplogroups frequencies in 20 population samples from central Argentina. References for populations abbreviated names are from the tables.

Interesting excerpts:

The immigration waves had less impact in the north–central and northwestern regions, the most populated areas of the country in pre-Hispanic times. The spatial structure of genetic diversity has its origins in historical factors. It is possible to distinguish different stages in migratory processes from abroad, with a heterogeneous regional impact. The genetic composition of central Argentina gives account of these processes. On one hand, the political boundaries between provinces influenced the configuration of the genetic structure of the populations that were formed. In this sense, Córdoba—an important economic and commercial center since colonial times—has a greater component of foreign lineages than the populations of San Luis and Santiago del Estero. On the other hand, the genetic structure of central Argentina also accounts for other processes related to different migration phases and occupations of space over the last 500 years.

Maternal continental contribution (in percentages), and Native American haplogroup frequencies, by population

Similarly, negative values observed in the neutrality tests (Tajima’s D and Fu’s FS), indicate relatively recent population growth, probably associated with technological and organizational changes leading to new lifestyles and important demographic and territorial expansion [75]. In conclusion, the molecular markers of maternal inheritance shows large genetic diversity homogeneously distributed throughout central Argentina, probably as result of a recent common origin and sustained gene flow between sub-populations. In addition, migratory events that occurred in colonial and recent times should have contributed to hiding any traces of differentiation that might have existed in the past. The analysis of paternal lineages showed also homogeneous distribution of the variation across the region but also a drastic reduction of the native male population, with a large prevalence of haplogroups of European origin.

Y chromosome haplogroups frequencies in three provinces from central Argentina and other 19 samples from Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay


On the origin of language and human evolution


A rather risky preprint at BioRxiv, Language evolution to revolution: the jump from finite communication system with many words to infinite recursive language was associated with acquisition of mental synthesis, by Andrey Vyshedskiy (2017).


There is overwhelming archeological and genetic evidence that modern speech apparatus was acquired by hominins by 600,000 years ago. There is also widespread agreement that behavioral modernity arose around 100,000 years ago. We attempted to answer three crucial questions: (1) what triggered the acquisition of behavioral modernity 100,000 years ago, (2) why there was a long gap between acquisition of modern speech apparatus and behavioral modernity, and (3) what role language might have played in the process. We conclude that the communication system of hominins prior to 100,000 years ago was finite and not-recursive. It may have had thousands of words but was lacking flexible syntax, spatial prepositions, verb tenses, and other features that enable modern recursive language to communicate an infinite number of ideas. We argue that a synergistic confluence of a genetic mutation that dramatically slowed down the prefrontal cortex (PFC) development in monozygotic twins and their spontaneous invention of recursive elements of language, such as spatial prepositions 100,000 years ago resulted in acquisition of special type of PFC-driven constructive imagination (called mental synthesis) and converted the finite communication system of their parents into infinite recursive language.

I recalled an old reference from The Seeds of Speech: Language Origin and Evolution, by Aitchison, J., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2000):

In 1866, a ban on the topic was incorporated into the founding statutes of the Linguistic Society of Paris, perhaps the foremost academic linguistic institution of the time:

“The Society does not accept papers on either the origin of language or the invention of a universal language.”

That is an amazingly old comparison of what linguists considered unscientific: pseudo-historic theories based on religious texts (i.e. “the origin of language“), and pseudo-scientific papers designed to promote personal inventions (and thus intricately linked with a strong bias and incorrect design and execution of research studies).

While the old rejection of articles on the origin of language was based on their inevitable religious undertones, it seems we may coming back to a time for speculative studies on the origin of language, now also based on genetics.

Featured image: from Review article on the origin of modern humans: the multiple-dispersal model and Late Pleistocene Asia


My European Family: The First 54,000 years, by Karin Bojs


I have recently read the book My European Family: The First 54,000 years (2015), by Karin Bojs, a known Swedish scientific journalist, former science editor of the Dagens Nyheter.

My European Family: The First 54,000 Years
It is written in a fresh, dynamic style, and contains general introductory knowledge to Genetics, Archaeology, and their relation to language, and is written in a time of great change (2015) for the disciplines involved.

The book is informed, it shows a balanced exercise between responsible science journalism and entertaining content, and it is at times nuanced, going beyond the limits of popular science books. It is not written for scholars, although you might learn – as I did – interesting details about researchers and institutions of the anthropological disciplines involved. It contains, for example, interviews with known academics, which she uses to share details about their personalities and careers, which give – in my opinion – a much needed context to some of their publications.

Since I am clearly biased against some of the findings and research papers which are nevertheless considered mainstream in the field (like the identification of haplogroup R1a with the Proto-Indo-European expansion, or the concept of steppe admixture), I asked my wife (who knew almost nothing about genetics, or Indo-European studies) to read it and write a summary, if she liked it. She did. So much, that I have convinced her to read The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007), by David Anthony.

Here is her summary of the book, translated from Spanish:

The book is divided in three main parts: The Hunters, The Farmers, and The Indo-Europeans, and each has in turn chapters which introduce and break down information in an entertaining way, mixing them with recounts of her interactions and personal genealogical quest.

Part one, The Hunters, offers intriguing accounts about the direct role music had in the development of the first civilizations, the first mtDNA analyses of dogs (Savolainen), and the discovery of the author’s Saami roots. Explanations about the first DNA studies and their value for archaeological studies are clear and comprehensible for any non-specialized reader. Interviews help give a close view of investigations, like that of Frederic Plassard’s in Les Combarelles cave.

Part two, The Farmers, begins with her travel to Cyprus, and arouses the interest of the reader with her description of the circular houses, her notes on the Basque language, the new papers and theories related to DNA analyses, the theory of the decision of cats to live with humans, the first beers, and the houses built over graves. Karin Bojs analyses the subgroup H1g1 of her grandmother Hilda, and how it belonged to the first migratory wave into Central Europe. This interest in her grandmother’s origins lead her to a conference in Pilsen about the first farmers in Europe, where she knows firsthand of the results of studies by János Jakucs, and studies of nuclear DNA. Later on she interviews Guido Brandt and Joachim Burguer, with whom she talks about haplogroups U, H, and J.

The chapter on Ötzi and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (Bolzano) introduces the reader to the first prehistoric individual whose DNA was analysed, belonging to haplogroup G2a4, but also revealing other information on the Iceman, such as his lactose intolerance.

Part three, dealing with the origin of Indo-Europeans, begins with the difficulties that researchers have in locating the origin of horse domestication (which probably happened in western Kazakhstan, in the Russian steppe between the rivers Volga and Don). She mentions studies by David Anthony and on the Yamna culture, and its likely role in the diffusion of Proto-Indo-European. In an interview with Mallory in Belfast, she recalls the potential interest of far-right extremists in genetic studies (and early links of the Journal of Indo-European Studies to certain ideology), as well as controversial statements of Gimbutas, and her potentially biased vision as a refugee from communist Europe. During the interview, Mallory had a copy of the latest genetic paper sent to Nature Magazine by Haak et al., not yet published, for review, but he didn’t share it.

Then haplogroups R1a and R1b are introduced as the most common in Europe. She visits the Halle State Museum of Prehistory (where the Nebra sky disk is exhibited), and later Krakow, where she interviews Slawomir Kadrow, dealing with the potential creation of the Corded Ware culture from a mix of Funnelbeaker and Globular Amphorae cultures. New studies of ancient DNA samples, published in the meantime, are showing that admixture analyses between Yamna and Corded Ware correlate in about 75%.

In the following chapters there is a broad review of all studies published to date, as well as individuals studied in different parts of Europe, stressing the importance of ships for the expansion of R1b lineages (Hjortspring boat).

The concluding chapter is dedicated to vikings, and is used to demystify them as aggressive warmongers, sketching their relevance as founders of the Russian state.

To sum up, it is a highly documented book, written in a clear style, and is capable of awakening the reader’s interest in genetic and anthropological research. The author enthusiastically looks for new publications and information from researchers, but is at the same time critic with them, showing often her own personal reactions to new discoveries, all of which offers a complex personal dynamic often shared by the reader, engaged with her first-person account the full length of the book.

Mayte Batalla (July 2017)

DISCLAIMER: The author sent me a copy of the book (a translation into Spanish), so there is a potential conflict of interest in this review. She didn’t ask for a review, though, and it was my wife who did it.