Updated February 1, 2017



Saudi Arabia - Palm tree, desert, camel, lake, mountains. Nice spot for a temporary, several-thousand-year home after leaving Africa.


As humans left Africa, they migrated across the globe in a web of paths that spread out like the branches of a tree, each limb of migration identifiable by a marker in our DNA. For male lineages, the M168 branch was one of the first to leave the African homeland.

Moving outward from Africa and along the coastline, members of this lineage were some of the earliest settlers in Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Some from this line would even travel over the land bridge to reach the Americas.

The man who gave rise to the first genetic marker in our lineage probably lived in northeast Africa in the region of the Rift Valley, perhaps in present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania. Scientists put the most likely date for when he lived at around 70,000 years ago. His descendants became the only lineage to survive outside of Africa, making him the common ancestor of every non-African man living today.

But why would man have first ventured out of the familiar African hunting grounds and into unexplored lands? The first migrants likely ventured across the Bab-al Mandeb strait, a narrow body of water at the southern end of the Red Sea, crossing into the Arabian Peninsula soon after M168 originated—perhaps 65,000 years ago. These beachcombers would make their way rapidly to India and Southeast Asia, following the coastline in a gradual march eastward. By 50,000 years ago, they had reached Australia. These were the ancestors of today’s Australian Aborigines.

It is also likely that a fluctuation in climate may have contributed to our ancestors’ exodus out of Africa. The African ice age was characterized by drought rather than by cold. Around 50,000 years ago, though, the ice sheets of the northern hemisphere began to melt, introducing a short period of warmer temperatures and moister climate in Africa and the Middle East. Parts of the inhospitable Sahara briefly became habitable. As the drought-ridden desert changed to a savanna, the animals hunted by our ancestors expanded their range and began moving through the newly emerging green corridor of grasslands.

Our nomadic ancestors followed the good weather and the animals they hunted, although the exact route they followed remains to be determined. In addition to a favorable change in climate, around this same time there was a great leap forward in modern humans’ intellectual capacity. Many scientists believe that the emergence of language gave us a huge advantage over other early human species. Improved tools and weapons, the ability to plan ahead and cooperate with one another, and an increased capacity to exploit resources in ways we hadn’t been able to earlier, all allowed modern humans to rapidly migrate to new territories, exploit new resources, and replace other hominids such as the Neanderthals.

POINT OF INTEREST: This male branch is one of the first to leave the African homeland.


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Copyright © 2017 by Robert Ranger, Wilmington, North Carolina.