WASHINGTON — When humans first left Africa, which way did they go?
For many years, experts 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 today'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 this DNA, scientists can estimate how long ago one group of people diverged from another group.
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. 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.
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.