Humanity’s Brink of Extinction: When Only 1,200 Ancestors Remained

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About 930,000 years ago, our human ancestors were almost wiped out. At one point, there were only around 1,200 individuals left on Earth, barely enough to fill a nightclub.

This dramatic population collapse, where 98% of humans disappeared, lasted for 117,000 years.

It was only around 800,000 years ago that the population began to recover, slowly growing to about 30,000 people.

A Troubling Time in the Paleolithic Era

This critical period occurred during the Paleolithic era, a time when drastic climatic changes and waves of animal migrations posed severe challenges to survival.

These pressures might have driven significant evolutionary changes in our ancestors, including genetic modifications that are still part of our genome today.

One of these changes could have led to the emergence of Homo heidelbergensis, a possible common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans.

New Insights from Genetic Analysis

In a recent study published in Science, researchers from China, Italy, and the U.S. used a technique called FitCoal to study ancient population dynamics.

By analyzing the genomes of 3,154 people worldwide, they inferred that the global population of our ancestors dwindled to just 1,200 individuals.

This bottleneck likely resulted in significant inbreeding, with effects on genetic diversity that we can still observe today.

Climate and Survival

The researchers suggest that major climatic changes, such as prolonged glaciations and severe droughts, contributed to the dramatic population decline.

However, around 813,000 years ago, conditions improved, possibly due to the control of fire, which made survival easier by providing warmth and a means to cook food.

Skepticism and Future Research

Not all experts are convinced by the study’s conclusions.

Antonio Rosas, a paleoanthropologist, argues that maintaining such a small population for so long is unlikely and that other factors, like volcanic activity or sedimentation, might explain the lack of fossils from this period.

Despite the skepticism, the study introduces new methods to explore our deep past and provides a fresh piece of the puzzle in understanding human evolution.

However, it also raises many questions. For example, where did these ancestral populations live, and what kind of lifestyle did they lead?

Loss of Genetic Diversity

The bottleneck likely led to a significant loss of genetic diversity, with estimates suggesting a 65% reduction.

Other major events, like the migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago, caused further bottlenecks, shaping modern humans into a species with relatively low genetic diversity compared to our ancient ancestors.

Conclusion

This study offers fascinating insights into a critical juncture in human history.

While it proposes answers, it also highlights the many mysteries that remain about our ancestors and their survival against overwhelming odds.

Future discoveries and new techniques may eventually fill in the gaps, helping us understand the full story of our origins.


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