Taim bilong mun, noken tok
Olam flying high after deluge of homeland love

The Melanesian expansion out of Africa

A Yaliman man from the Baliem Valley of West Papua

| Department of Archaeology and Anthropology

CAMBRIDGE, UK - A new study of human genomic diversity suggests there may have in fact been two successful dispersals out of Africa, and that a “trace” of the earlier of these two expansion events has lingered in the genetics of modern Papuans.

Three major genetic studies are published today in the same issue of Nature.

All three agree that, for the most part, the genomes of contemporary non-African populations show signs of only one expansion of modern humans out of Africa: an event that took place sometime after 75,000 years ago.  

Two of the studies conclude that, if there were indeed earlier expansions of modern humans out of Africa, they have left little or no genetic trace. The third, however, may have found that ‘trace’.

This study, led by Drs Luca Pagani and Toomas Kivisild from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, has found a “genetic signature” in present-day Papuans that suggests at least 2% of their genome originates from an even earlier, and otherwise extinct, dispersal of humans out of Africa.

Papuans and Philippine Negritos are populations that inhabit Papua New Guinea and some of the surrounding islands in Southeast Asia and Oceania.

In the genomes of these populations, the researchers discovered more of the African ‘haplotypes’ – groups of genes linked closely enough to be inherited from a single source – than in any other present-day population.  

Extensive analysis on the extra 2% of African haplotypes narrowed down the split between African (Yoruban) and Papuan lineages to around 120,000 years ago – a remarkable 45,000 years prior to the very earliest that the main African expansion could have occurred. 

The study analysed genomic diversity in 125 human populations at an unprecedented level of detail, based on 379 high resolution whole genome sequences from across the world generated by an international collaboration led by the Cambridge team and colleagues from the Estonian Biocentre. 

Lead researcher Luca Pagani said: “Papuans share for most part same evolutionary history as all other non-Africans, but our research shows they may also contain some remnants of a chapter that is also yet to be described.

“While our research is in almost complete agreement with all other groups with regard to a single out-of-Africa event, this scenario cannot fully account for some genetic peculiarities in the Papuan genomes we analysed.”

Pagani says the sea which separates the ‘ecozones’ of Asia and Australasia may have played a part: “The Wallace line is a channel of deep sea that was never dry during the ice ages.

This constant barrier may have contributed to isolating and hence preserving the traces of the otherwise extinct lineage in Papuan populations.”

Toomas Kivisild said: “We believe that at least one additional human expansion out of Africa took place before the major one described in our research and others.

“These people diverged from the rest of Africans about 120,000 years ago, colonising some land outside of Africa. The 2% of the Papuan genome is the only remaining trace of this otherwise extinct lineage.”

The Estonian Biocentre’s Dr Mait Metspalu said: “This endeavour was uniquely made possible by the anonymous sample donors and the collaboration effort of nearly one hundred researchers from 74 different research groups from all over the world.”

Metspalu’s colleague Richard Villems added: “Overall this work provides an invaluable contribution to the understanding of our evolutionary past and to the challenges that humans faced when settling down in ever-changing environments.”

Researchers say the deluge of freely available data will serve as future starting point to further studies on the genetic history of modern and ancient human populations.


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Robin Hide

its worth taking a look at ongoing research being done by a joint team from France and UPNG which is I think relevant to your questions. See: https://papuanpast.hypotheses.org/category/news

Philip Kai Morre

Do we humans have common ancestors originating from Africa or elsewhere. Are Papuans a special hybrid? Where do Adam and Eve come in this? Do they really exist with empirical facts or are they just myths to explain creation?

And what about the question of black or white supremacy?

I understand that early civilisation started around the same period in Mesopotamia, the River Nile and Kuk in the Western Highlands.

Robin Hide

Apologies, Mathias, for a rather cryptic comment, and a poor link to the original source of the material.

My intention was to point out that, contrary to the wording of the piece (e.g. ' published today in the same issue of Nature.' with the 26 October 2020 date on the PNG Attitude posting), this in fact dated from an announcement describing the papers from 4 years ago, 2016.

This link may work better: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160921131119.htm

The article by Pagani et al (2016) Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature can be downloaded from:

Mathias Kin

This is very interesting for us who enjoy reading about the past.

Dr Robin Hide, can you be more nice and elaborative on your suggestion or comment.

I simply can't reach it.

Garry Roche

I wonder how does this 'earlier' dispersal of humans from Africa relates to the evidence of Denisovan influence on the genetics of Melanesians?

Any archaeologists or anthropologists care to comment on this?

Robin Hide

This is reproducing a four year old press release which was published in 2016.


Garry Roche
Garry Roche
Philip Fitzpatrick

I think the term used in this context is widespread and also applies to Australian Aborigines John.

John Conroy

Very interesting. Two percent is very little indeed but I'm not qualified to comment on the significance of that number.

If the Wallace line was crucial in shielding and retaining 'African' genes in the 'Papuan' population then it seems possible that some other populations to the east of that line (including the Moluccas/Maluku in modern Indonesia) may also display the African influence.

But my question relates to the definition of 'Papuan' in this context. Does it exclude the Austronesian populations which are spread all the way from Madagascar, through the Indonesian archipelago and into Melanesia (Motu, for example)?

If so we'd expect not to find the African genes in those populations.

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