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Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins

ISBN: 978-0-471-38413-7
264 pages
April 2001
Genetics and the Search for Modern Human Origins (0471384135) cover image


A major debate in anthropology concerns the relationship between anatomically modern humans and earlier "archaic" humans including the Neandertals. What was the origin of modern humans? Did we arise as a new species in Africa 200,000 years ago and then replace archaic human populations outside of Africa, or are our origins part of a single evolving lineage extending back over the past two million years? In addition to fossil and archaeological evidence, anthropologists have increasingly turned to using genetic data on living populations to address this question. Patterns of genetic variation within and between living human populations are felt to contain clues as to our species' evolutionary history, and provide a reflection of the past.

This book reviews the modern human origins debate focusing on the genetic evidence relating to our origins, including genetic variation in living humans and recent discoveries of ancient DNA from fossil specimens. Following a brief introduction to the problem and a review of evolutionary genetics, the book focuses on gene trees and the search for a common ancestor, genetic diversity within populations, genetic distances between populations, the use of genetic data to reconstruct ancient demography, and Neandertal DNA. The main point of the text is that although the genetic data are often compatible with a replacement model, they are also compatible with some multiregional models. The concluding chapter makes the case that modern human origins are mostly, but not exclusively, out of Africa.
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Table of Contents

Reflections of the Past.

Evolution and Genetic History.

The Modern Human Origins Debate.

In Search of Our Common Ancestor.

Genetic Diversity and Recent Human Evolution.

Genetic Differences Between Human Populations.

How Many Ancestors?

Neandertal DNA.

Putting the Pieces Together.

Chapter Notes.


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"This textbook provides a good introduction to the field of human populations genetics for people lacking a genetics background.... I hope that his book will ultimately encourage more students to enter this exciting field." (Trends in Genetics, Vol. 17, No. 9, September 2001)

"...controversies...grounded in a solid college-level introduction to how the genetic code and evolution account for genetic diversity." (SciTech Book News, Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2001)

"I found Relethford s discussion of the recent Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA findings to be the most cogent explanation I have read to date.... I recommend his book to anyone interested in modern human origins." (Linda Wolfe, Anthropology News)

"Relethford writes...in a lucid and engaging manner. He dispassionately examines the major controversies surrounding modern human origins and clearly identifies the ways in which the genetic data impinge on the predictions of the explanatory models....[T]his book will appeal to the general science reader, as well as being suitable for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in Biological Anthropology." (American Journal of Human Biology)

"...lucid and engaging...enjoyable to read...will appeal to the general science reader...suitable for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses..." (American Journal of Human Biology, Vol. 14, No. 4, July/August 2002)

"...an accessible guide through the models and the data...will be a popular recommended text..." (Heredity)

The modern human origins debate is finally illuminated with the first clear and understandable discussion of the genetic arguments on both sides. Relethford is a key player in this debate, and he brings to it a sorely needed perspective, placing the exciting laboratory results in the theoretical frame that explains them, and doing it in manner that the rest of us can grasp. It's good writing, because it's good thinking, and Relethford is to be congratulated for his efforts in clarifying and explaining the complex issues that underlie the conflict between Multiregional evolution and the Eve Theory.--Milford H. Wolpoff, Paleoanthropology Laboratory, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

"[The author] has presented a deeply thoughtful and provocative assessment of our understanding of modern human origins. I think it takes the whole debate forward by a quantum leap." --Rosalind Harding, University of Oxford

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