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Earth News Science

Humans Nearly Went Extinct 1.2M Years Ago 356

Posted by kdawson
from the pinch-point dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Scientific American has a story on researchers from the University of Utah who have calculated that 1.2 million years ago, at a time when our ancestors Homo erectus, H. ergaster, and archaic H. sapiens were spreading through Africa, Europe, and Asia, there were probably only about 18,500 individuals capable of breeding in all these species together (PNAS paper here). Pre-humans were an endangered species with a smaller population than today's gorillas and chimpanzees. Researchers scanned two completely sequenced modern human genomes for a type of mobile element called Alu sequences, then compared the nucleotides in these old regions with the overall diversity in the two genomes to estimate differences in effective population size, and thus genetic diversity between modern and early humans. Human geneticist Lynn Jorde says that the diminished genetic diversity one million years ago suggests human ancestors experienced a catastrophic event at that time as devastating as the Toba super-volcano in Indonesia that triggered a nuclear winter and is thought to have nearly annihilated humans 70,000 years ago."
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Humans Nearly Went Extinct 1.2M Years Ago

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  • Pfft... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:23AM (#30888832)
    That's nothing. I mean, the whole race started from just two people, right?
  • by Daevad (62067) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:23AM (#30888834)

    Luckily, magic underwear was discovered and humans survived the event.

  • This means ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BlackPignouf (1017012) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:26AM (#30888854)

    this means that we're really all brothers and sisters, right?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Only if you believe in evolution. Or creation.

    • Sounds like where we'll be at after another three seasons of American Idol.

    • Re:This means ... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:51AM (#30889096) Homepage Journal

      More than that, I read a year or so ago (it may have been covered at slashdot, I don't remember) that it was mathematically proven that everyone on earth shares common anscestors from as little as a thousand years ago.

      Besides, there was the other near extinction 70K years ago. Wht I find interesting is the near extinctions were probably what led to modern humans' intelligence and other traits (like humor) that makes us so different from other species.

  • by Sasayaki (1096761) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:28AM (#30888864)

    Obviously this is when Adama and the fleet landed on Earth. BSG was right all along!

  • by CubicleView (910143) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:28AM (#30888872) Journal
    There should be some sort of correlation in the results.
    • by hey! (33014) on Monday January 25, 2010 @10:20AM (#30889446) Homepage Journal

      I disagree. I think you'd see the same correlations in some species, but not necessarily all.

      Let's posit some kind of catastrophic event that puts pressure on early hominids. It does not follow that every species is put under evolutionary pressure, only those that rely on the certain ecological resources to survive. So it doesn't have to be an event like nuclear winter.

      Furthermore we might not see these effects in other species because most of the species that survived found the changes brought on by the event favorable to them. The ones that didn't for the most part may not have survived, or may have only survived in certain niches.

      Hominids are a special case. Except in a few circumstances migration is not part of their lifestyle, but they have a tremendous latent capacity to migrate, probably greater and certainly more flexible than any land animal. So our posited "disaster" happens, but it doesn't look like a disaster to most of the species that survived. As for those for whom it was a disaster, many perish and a few manage to hold on in isolated geographic niches. These are almost certain to include hominids, with their adaptability and latent capacity to migrate great distances. Most of the hominids either don't get moving quickly enough or don't find a place to survive in, but enough of them do to maintain a breeding population.

      Of course, this scenario isn't a scientific one. It's more of a counterscenario demonstrating that we wouldn't necessarily expect to see the same genetic phenomena everywhere we looked.

  • Summary is wrong (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:31AM (#30888898)

    The 18500 people quoted is not the number of people capable of breeding, but the "effective population", an abstract measure of genetic diversity in a species. According to TFA, the effective population of modern humanity is about 10000, and the argument in the article is that this much lower diversity indicates that a lot of genetic material must have been lost in a near-extinction event.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Zarf (5735)

      The 18500 people quoted is not the number of people capable of breeding, but the "effective population", an abstract measure of genetic diversity in a species. According to TFA, the effective population of modern humanity is about 10000, and the argument in the article is that this much lower diversity indicates that a lot of genetic material must have been lost in a near-extinction event.

      Yes, the idea that the "effective" population of today's human race is only 10,000 is the most disturbing thing in the article. If that's true then the vast majority of us are not contributing anything worth noting to the gene pool. That's not a very nice thought.

      • by Kjella (173770) on Monday January 25, 2010 @11:57AM (#30891022) Homepage

        Yes, the idea that the "effective" population of today's human race is only 10,000 is the most disturbing thing in the article. If that's true then the vast majority of us are not contributing anything worth noting to the gene pool. That's not a very nice thought.

        Other species would develop thicker fur in colder climates. We simply wear thicker clothes. It's not like all diversity is necessary or useful for people that reshape the environment to fit them instead.

  • by chichilalescu (1647065) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:31AM (#30888900) Homepage Journal

    (not trying to rain on your parade or anything)
    Back on topic. Humans nearly went extinct during the nuclear missile crysis... In terms of survival requirements, we should have already sent a few groups to the moon and mars.
    People enjoy watching disaster movies like 2012 (I saw it as a comedy myself), but they should realise that focusing all your resources (as a species) on "I want a TV in every room" is a losing strategy.
    If I had the money, I would be long gone. "Yes, 21st century society is very advanced and we have everything we need, but if they have a power outage or similar in a hidden bunker in Russia, we all die".

    • by elrous0 (869638) *
      I think humans are more resilient than we appreciate. I think it would take more than a nuclear war to completely wipe out a species as adaptive as we are. I suspect that nothing short of an earth-destroying asteroid or some sort of weapon far more destructive than nuclear missles would completely wipe us out (and I don't mean a Yucatan asteroid, I mean one that rips the planet to pieces). We're not a passive species like the dinosaur, we can adapt to *much* more hostile environs. And, short on the earth-ki
      • Even before the modern era, man had spread throughout the planet save Antarctica. Mountains, prairies, woodlands, sea coast, jungle, desert, arctic, we were there. I can't think of a another land species (apart from microorganisms) that was so wide spread.

        This suggests that mankind is spectacularly adaptive in comparison to other species.
        • Marshlands. I forgot marshlands.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by ColdWetDog (752185)
            You also forgot the Giant Redwood. The Larch. The Fir! The mighty Scots Pine!
            The lofty flowering Cherry! The plucky little Apsen! The limping Roo tree of Nigeria.
            The towering Wattle of Aldershot! The Maidenhead Weeping Water Plant!
            The naughty Leicestershire Flashing Oak! The flatulent Elm of West Ruislip!
            The Quercus Maximus Bamber Gascoigni! The Epigillus! The Barter Hughius Greenus!
    • by corbettw (214229) <[corbettw] [at] [yahoo.com]> on Monday January 25, 2010 @11:00AM (#30890076) Journal

      Humans nearly went extinct during the nuclear missile crysis [sic]

      Nuclear war would not have wiped out humanity. It could've killed tens of millions of people immediately, and maybe hundreds of millions more after two years of poor crops and contaminated water, but large pockets would've survived pretty much unscathed. Most of South America, Africa, and Australasia (with the obvious exception of Australia itself on the coasts) would not have been hit at all, in all likelihood. And life would've been rough for those people for a few years, the earth has phenomenal ability to heal itself. Hell, people live in Hiroshima and have picnics at ground zero; I hardly doubt later nuclear weapons would've had longer-lasting effects than the first weak, but extremely dirty, bombs did.

    • by dkleinsc (563838) on Monday January 25, 2010 @11:03AM (#30890130) Homepage

      Humans nearly went extinct during the nuclear missile crisis

      In that event, I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens. It would be quite easy at the bottom of some of our deeper mine shafts. The radioactivity would never penetrate a mine some thousands of feet deep. And in a matter of weeks, sufficient improvements in dwelling space could easily be provided. Nuclear reactors could provide power almost indefinitely. Greenhouses could maintain plant life. Animals could be bred and slaughtered. A quick survey would have to be made of all the available mine sites in the country. But I would guess that dwelling space for several hundred thousands of our people could easily be provided. With the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present gross national product within say, twenty years.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by lawpoop (604919)
      I don't know... for a species that has gone to every continent but Antarctica with stone-age technology, I think we are doing just fine with our natural "TV in every room" instincts. As a society, we haven't been able to muster enough resources and organization to put colonies on the moon and Mars for scientific and exploration purposes. But say a private company starts moon holidays with a private spaceship, and some young couple on their honeymoon decide that the moon is a really beautiful place...
  • by NotBornYesterday (1093817) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:33AM (#30888916) Journal
    I think this means we are a stubborn infestation, successfully resisting the Universe's attempts to exterminate us thus far. The Universe realized that we are harder to kill than cockroaches, and concluded that the only way to wipe us out is to place the means of our destruction in our own hands. Now, it's just a waiting game.
    • I have my doubts that giving weapons of mass destruction to cockroaches is an effective way to exterminate them. In that sense we are not quite as hard to kill as cockroaches.

      (In other news, I've just come up with the Sci-Fi/horror plot of the year.)

      • That was done already on an episode of "Fairly Odd Parents."

      • That depends how tribal and territorial the cockroaches become. I figure that all we need to start a cockroach war is create a two different tribes with social hierarchy and resource scarcity, and war will inevitably follow. Oh, and if that scifi plot goes anywhere, remember to split the royalties with me.
  • What happened to those? Sounds like an excellent power source...
    • Re:Nuclear Volcano? (Score:5, Informative)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:49AM (#30889076)

      What happened to those? Sounds like an excellent power source...

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geothermal_gradient [wikipedia.org]

      "The Earth's internal heat comes from a combination of residual heat from planetary accretion (about 20%) and heat produced through radioactive decay (80%)"

      In a sense, those "green geothermal" power plants are really nuclear power plants.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      The term comes from the liklihood of nuclear annhailation that we faced in my youth. "Nuclear winter" was the dust from all those thousands of atomic weapons blocking sunlight, keeping plants from growing.

      The term morphed to include other causes of the "winter" besides nuclear war.

  • by Sockatume (732728) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:34AM (#30888928)

    I'm just saying, there's some suspicious congruencies there.

  • More evidence supporting the B Ark theory of human origins...

  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Monday January 25, 2010 @09:48AM (#30889068)

    The Ancients died of a plague and most of them ascended.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellowstone_Caldera [wikipedia.org]

    ah yes, i've heard of mexicans and canadians, there's only a few in the world, but they're real. as for these so-called "americans", i believe this is a mythical nationality, i don't think they ever really existed. they're just bogeymen made up to scare small children

  • The advent of Karaoke!
  • ...thought at first that the headline was "Humans Went Extinct Nearly 1.2M Years Ago" and thought, "Boy, we're doing pretty well for an extinct species..."

  • I mean, don't we already know that our species went through several bottlenecks? If I remember correctly, at one point we went through a bottleneck so small that the total number of breeding females was in the double digits. What I am more concerned about is when the next bottleneck is going to happen, and what will be the cause of it.
    • That is rather easy to say, probably within the next 100 years and we will be the cause ourselves, either war or famine, or sickness, but in any case the cause will be greed and overpopulation.
      I still believe the earth itself or nature itself has self regulartory effects in the small as in the big, if one species endangers the entire of the host then some self regulatory mechanism strikes in which decimates the numbers again. You can see that in the small with virii and in the big with species doing collect

  • Back then, I'm assuming survival from a cataclysm had a lot to do with being at the right place at the right time, and you only had to fight for scarce resources with the people nearby. If a cataclysm happened today, it would be easier for people to escape to the remaining habitable areas, and we have a lot more tools to use to fight over those scarce resources. If we ever have a nuclear apocalypse, I bet it will be due to a sudden world war triggered by a natural disaster.
  • Personally, I wonder if this might be the psychological root-event of the persistent and widespread human eschatological theme of 'world destruction by fire' etc. One might even see a parallel event in the Christian Bible's expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden - prevented from returning by "...a flaming sword which turned every way..." (KJV).

    It seems that since Troy, we're finding that all the great myths and legends that have come down to us through the ages seem to have some kernel of truth

  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday January 25, 2010 @11:04AM (#30890148)
    The TWO (only two) genomes analyzed were from the subpopulation which left Africa. If you fully sequence a native south African more genomic variety, this hypothesis may not hold up.
  • Humans Nearly Went Extinct 1.2M Years Ago

    So, Microsoft, RIAA, MPAA, and software patents existed back then also?

  • by 3-State Bit (225583) on Monday January 25, 2010 @12:30PM (#30891666)

    Bah, you call that news? Try:
          "Humans Nearly Went Extinct 27 Years Ago" [google.com]
    the commander's Wikipedia entry says he:

    "deviated from standard Soviet doctrine by correctly identifying a missile attack warning as a false alarm on September 26, 1983.[1] This decision most likely resulted in preventing an accidental retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its Western Allies."

    You can follow any of the links in the above search, or here's a particularly lively read. [psychsound.com]

"It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so." -- Artemus Ward aka Charles Farrar Brown