WASHINGTON — About 200,000 years ago there lived one woman who was a maternal ancestor of every human being living today, a team of biologists has concluded after analyzing special genes in the cells of people from all the world's major racial and ethnic groups.
The scientists have taken to calling the woman Eve because she is thought to be the one maternal ancestor common to all the family trees of every member of the human race.
The name may be misleading, however, because she is not the sole maternal ancestor. The claim is not that Eve was the only woman having children 200,000 years ago. She had many contemporaries who were each among the ancestors of many living today.
The claim is simpler: If each person could trace a family tree far enough back, everyone's ancestors doubling in number with each generation into the past, the tree would reach a time in which there were several thousand ancestors sharing one generation. Among each person's many ancestors living 200,000 years ago, according to the claim, the same woman would appear on all the charts.
The claim is likely to be controversial. But the scientists behind it, from UC Berkeley, have considerable stature in the study of evolutionary relationships as they can be interpreted from genetic studies.
Their report, in the prestigious British journal Nature, is accompanied by an independent commentary that takes the claim seriously and calls it "the strongest molecular evidence so far in favor of the African population being ancestral (to all living humans)."
The claim does not contradict the general understanding of human evolution. It accepts the fossil evidence that the human lineage diverged from that of the apes a few million years ago into a species called Australopithecus, which evolved into Homo habilis, followed by Homo erectus and, about 400,000 years ago, by early forms of Homo sapiens.
The claim also generally agrees with the view widely shared among anthropologists that anatomically modern forms of Homo sapiens, the species to which all living people belong, arose more than 100,000 years ago and probably in Africa.
One Population, One Place
The findings suggest that while there were primitive forms of Homo sapiens living throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, fully modern humans arose in only one small population in one place and their descendants eventually spread throughout the Old World, replacing the earlier population.
The genetic evidence cited by the Berkeley group also implies that all of today's racial differences evolved after descendants of Eve had grown quite numerous and migrated out of Africa into Eurasia. The differences arose after various populations of the descendants had become geographically separated and could no longer interbreed to any significant degree with other populations.
The claim is being advanced by Allan C. Wilson, Mark Stoneking and Rebecca L. Cann.
Wilson is a pioneer in the use of genetic differences among living organisms to study evolutionary relationships. He was a developer of the "molecular clock" method of determining when various related species diverged in the course of evolution.
Like the new claim, the molecular clock depends on counting the number of mutational differences between comparable genes in different species. For example, a human gene for a protein such as hemoglobin differs from a chimpanzee gene for hemoglobin by a certain number of mutations.
Such differences could begin to accumulate only after the ancestral lineage common to both had split. Assuming that the mutations, being random, arise at a relatively steady rate, one can estimate that it takes a specific amount of time to produce a specific amount of genetic difference.
In this example, Wilson and another colleague, Vincent Sarich, have long argued, the most recent common ancestor of humans and apes lived 4 million to 6 million years ago, at which point the ape and human lineages diverged.
In making the interpretation about Eve, Wilson and his colleagues have examined a special set of genes possessed by all human cells but not carried in the nucleus, where the vast majority of every cell's genes reside. The special genes are carried in structures within cells, called mitochondria.
Mitochondria function as a cell's powerhouse, converting the chemical energy from food into a form that the cell can use. They are the only structures in cells that carry their own genes and which reproduce in the cell by splitting exactly as if they were bacteria inhabiting the cell. (Many biologists believe mitochondria originated as bacteria that became permanent symbiotic partners of cells.)