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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