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How did early humans first leave Africa?

New evidence suggests that humans' initial migration route out of Africa followed the coasts of the Arabian peninsula into India, Indonesia and Australia.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When humans first left Africa, which way did they go?

For many years experts have assumed these early migrants headed through what is now Egypt, across the Sinai and into the Middle East.

But new evidence suggests they may have taken a more southerly route, along the coasts of the Arabian peninsula into India, Indonesia and Australia.

Two reports in Friday's issue of the journal Science raise the possibility of the coastal route. The studies are based on comparisons of mitochondrial DNA in various native populations.

DNA is the coded set of instructions in cells that enables reproduction. The form found in the mitochondria, the energy producing portion of cells, is inherited from the mother. By studying differences in mitochondrial DNA, scientists can estimate how long ago one group of people diverged from another group.

Studying aborigines in Malaysia
In one paper, a team led by Vincent Macaulay of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, proposes a single dispersal from Africa along a coastal route to India and Australia. An offshoot led later to the settlement of the Middle East and Europe.

Researchers studied the mitochondrial DNA of the Orang Asli, an aboriginal population in Malaysia. These people branched off from other Asian lineages around 60,000 years ago, soon after their ancestors left Africa, according to the team.

By comparing that DNA and that of other groups in India, Australia and other locations, researchers concluded there was a relatively rapid coastal dispersal from about 65,000 years ago around the Indian Ocean and into Australia.

Evidence from Andaman and Nicobar Islands
A second paper reports the study of indigenous tribal populations on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, between India and Myanmar.

These researchers, led by Kumarasamy Thangaraj of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, found two relatively old populations of Andaman Islanders that probably survived in genetic isolation since the out-of-Africa migration.

But this team concluded that the Nicobarese populations were more closely related to other populations in Southeast Asia, suggesting that their ancestors arrived much more recently from the east.

Further research needed
Peter Forster and Shuichi Matsumura of the University of Cambridge, England, hoped the papers would inspire further research in the area.

Forster and Matsumura, who were not part of either research team, noted in a commentary that the age estimates for early populations can add support to the idea of a population spread that occurred first along the coasts.

If the original Africans had moved into the Middle East and north, then why was Europe settled thousands of years after Australia, they asked in a commentary. In Europe, Neanderthals were replaced by modern humans only between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, while southern Australia had been settled as early as 46,000 years ago.

The research was funded by United Productions, the Discovery Channel, the British Academy, the Royal Society, the University of Huddersfield, the Wellcome Trust, the Italian Ministry of the University, Muzium Negara Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia.