Earth photographed from space. Click to enlarge image
This image is made from multiple photographs and data to construct the best approximation of what earth looks like from outer space. Most of the data came from MODIS on a satellite 700km above the surface. Taken Feb 8 2002. Image: NASA compsite

About 2 million years ago, the first of our ancestors moved northwards from their homelands and out of Africa.

Why did it take so long to leave Africa?

The extensive arid environments of northern Africa and the Middle East were a major barrier blocking movement out of Africa. Before they could spread out of Africa, our ancestors needed to develop physical and mental capabilities that would enable them to survive in these harsh environments where food and fresh water were highly seasonal resources.

Who left Africa first?

Homo ergaster (or African Homo erectus) may have been the first human species to leave Africa. Fossil remains show this species had expanded its range into southern Eurasia by 1.75 million years ago. Their descendents, Asian Homo erectus, then spread eastward and were established in South East Asia by at least 1.6 million years ago.

However, an alternate theory proposes that hominins migrated out of Africa before Homo ergaster evolved, possibly about 2 million years ago, prior to the earliest dates of Homo erectus in Asia. These hominins may have been either australopithicines or, more likely, an unknown species of Homo, similar in appearance to Homo habilis. In this theory, the population found at Dmanisi represent a missing link in the evolution of Homo erectus/Homo ergaster. Perhaps too, the evolution of Homo ergaster occurred outside of Africa and there was considerable gene flow between African and Eurasian populations.

This theory has gained more support in recent years due to DNA research. Evidence from a genetic study indicates an expansion out of Africa about 1.9 million years ago and gene flow occurring between Asian and African populations by 1.5 million years ago. More physical evidence is needed from key areas in Eurasia such as Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but politics is currently making this difficult.

What made it possible to leave Africa?

While there is some debate about whether Homo ergaster was the first of our ancestors to leave Africa, they did possess the physical and cultural attributes that would have aided dispersal through the arid environments of northern Africa and the Middle East. These attributes included:

  • a modern body shape with an efficient striding gait suited to travelling over long distances, although smaller statures are represented in the remains from Dmanisi
  • a sufficiently developed intelligence to cope with unfamiliar environments, although did not require a brain size much bigger than Homo habilis, with an average brain size of 610cc
  • improved technology to aid subsistence (Oldowan-style tools or Mode1 Technology have been found at sites in Dmanisi, Georgia, and northern China, both dating to 1.7 million years old)
  • a diet that included more meat and which increased the food supply options in seasonally arid environments

Who left Africa next?

After the first early dispersals out of Africa, various other groups of early humans spread out of Africa as their populations grew. These dispersals were not regular or constant but instead occurred as waves of dispersal during periods with favourable climatic and environmental conditions.

These waves of dispersal out of Africa included movements eastward across southern Asia more than one million years ago and movements into western Europe within the last 900,000 years. Movements back into Africa also occurred.

Modern human migrations

More recently, modern humans began their dispersal out of Africa. This dispersal appears to have taken two forms - irregular occupation of the Levant and nearby sites by small populations and then migration on a mass scale.

The oldest known Homo sapiens fossils outside of Africa come from caves in Israel - Misliya (about 180,000 years old), Skhul (about 90,000 years old) and Qafzeh (about 120,000 years old). These probably represent populations that intermittently occupied the region and it is unlikely that there was direct evolutionary continuity between the Misliya and later Skhul/Qafzeh peoples. Genetic studies also support the idea of earlier dispersals of modern humans out of Africa starting from about 220,000 years ago.

There is also evidence in the form of stone tools that indicate the possibility that earlier dispersals reached beyond the Levant. Stone tools have been found in India dating to about 74,000 years old, in Yemen dating to between 70,000 and 80,000 years old, and in the United Arab Emirates dating to about 80,000 years old. Some of these tools resemble African Middle Stone Age technology, others are more like those used by Neanderthals in Europe and Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in the Levant. No human remains were found with the tools, but as Neanderthals have not been found in these regions, it is assumed the makers were modern humans.

Most experts conclude, from genetic and material evidence, that migration on a mass scale only occurred within the last 60,000 years or so.

By 100,000 years ago, humans had dispersed and diversified into at least four species. Our own species, Homo sapiens, lived in Africa and the Middle East, Homo neanderthalensis lived in Europe, and Homo floresiensis in southern Asia. DNA from human remains in Denisova cave, Russia, indicates a fourth species was also still extant when Homo sapiens was migrating through southern Asia about 60,000 years ago. Modern Melanesians have about 4% of this DNA. The species is unknown, but may be late surviving Homo heidelbergensis or a yet-to-be-discovered species. This diversity disappeared about 28,000 years ago, however, and only one human species now survives.