There weren’t many humans on the earth a million years ago

Tonight I’m fascinated by this article in the New York Times on what the human genome is teaching us about our evolution as a species. According to the article, now that we have two completely mapped human genomes, we’ve begun to make a number of significant observations based on the genetic variation between the two. For one, scientists at the University of Utah have been able to determine that 1.2 million years ago, the world contained a breeding population of just about 18,500 individuals. (The actual population may have been as high as 55,000 individuals.) Here’s a clip from the article:

…Comparable estimates for other primates then are 21,000 for chimpanzees and 25,000 for gorillas. In biological terms, it seems, humans were not a very successful species, and the strategy of investing in larger brains than those of their fellow apes had not yet produced any big payoff. Human population numbers did not reach high levels until after the advent of agriculture…

I love that the author makes it sound as though we made a conscious decision to invest in larger brains, and that, for hundreds of thousands of years, we got nothing for it. We weren’t any more successful, reproduction-wise, than chimps. But, then, someone had the bright idea to put seeds in the ground, and the rest is history. It’s funny how stuff works out.

And how weird is it to think that we’re all descended from a population of individuals smaller than that presently living in Ypsilanti. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

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  1. Posted January 20, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know, I’ve seen how you people get on there in Ypsi. It makes me think they could have started with even fewer humans.

  2. Educator
    Posted January 20, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    But, Mark, you’re forgetting that the world is only 6,000 years old.

    Science is for witches.

  3. Kim
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    This gives me hope that maybe, in a few hundred thousand years, our decision to invest in Iraq will make sense too.

  4. The Local Scientist
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    This would certainly explain why fossils from this period of human evolution have been so difficult to come by.

  5. Alf
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Super Gay, through his name, raises an interesting point. Of the 18,500 in the breeding population, it would stand to reason that a few were, shall we say, otherwise engaged.

  6. Havvah La Leche
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I find it equally mind blowing that the most recent common ancestor … the grandma of all six billion people on the planet today … lived only 6,000-8,000 years ago, if that.

    We are family!

  7. Curt Waugh
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Cool article, but “grandma of all six billion people” is a bit of a misnomer. The article simply discusses the inclusion of that single person’s DNA in all our DNAs. She’s probably more like your “weird Aunt Gladys of six billion people”.

  8. Robert
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m anxiously awaiting EOS’s contribution to this thread.

  9. Me
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    Yeah. I invested in a larger brain a few years ago, but I traded it on craigslist for a “gently used” Playstation.
    Let me get this straight. The homo sapiens was not really “successful” (biologically speaking) because there were only a few thousand of us, and we lasted what, a million-point-one or so years like that alongside the other primates. Then, we started planting. Yeah, bright idea. Now how many highland gorillas are there? And how many humans?
    So we are sitting in judgement of a decision that happened just a few thousand years ago when for over one million years we were a breeding population (however unsuccessful), and we grew our brains for this.
    Now, because some anthropos in Utah does some little study, we dropped the normal Mark Maynard debates about whether we are killing those big white furry predators at the north pole without even realizing it (that is how successful/powerful we are) and all the hole in the ozone layer shit and all the coal fired slag we are dumping in our rivers and all the nuclear waste and killing ten million people in gas chambers in just a few years and blowing up entire countries where we have no business and fuzzy little Ling-Ling and Sing-Sing and all that save-the-earth, shop at real foods bullshit?
    As a member of the human race, I am sitting here in my little cubicle, patting myself on the back for such a “successful” breeding history.
    What can one say? We are a species that loves extremes.
    Carpe Diem.

  10. EOS
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Just for you Robert –

    There weren’t ANY humans on the earth a million years ago. I thought we covered that already.

    If I looked at the DNA of two flies, could I tell how many flies there were on the earth a thousand years ago? Doesn’t it depend on how many bears have shit in the woods?

  11. Posted January 22, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised, I figured EOS would jump on the idea of the MRCA occurring between the 6th millenium BC and the 1st millenium AD and that the identical ancestors point may be as recent as 5,000 years ago as “proof” of Noah, the flood, Adam & Eve, and a “young earth”.

  12. Edward
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    See also:

  13. Posted January 22, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    There’s a key paragraph in that article:

    But that estimate would apply to the worldwide population only if there were inbreeding between the humans on the different continents. If not, and if modern humans are descended from just one of these populations, like Homo ergaster in Africa, then the estimate would apply only to that.

    In other words, there may have been any number of distinct populations of early humans, and the specific population that eventually gave rise to modern humans was about 55,000.

  14. EOS
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    cmadler –

    Check the earlier discussion – the 6000 year history comes up later in the threads.

  15. Me
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Here is a trick I pulled with my niece. It is a good way to have fun and interact with a middle schooler.
    Give them a Social Studies pop quiz:

    In which order did the following events occur in history/prehistory?

    a) Invention/discovery of agriculture
    b) Altamira cave paintings
    c) Invention of fellatio
    d) Heather Locklear from TJ Hooker
    e) Robespierre and Cardinal Richelieu massacre 43 Woolly Mammoths on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin

    Unfortunately, middle school kids don’t remember Heather Locklear from TJ Hooker. So it wasn’t as fun as it could have been, but you get the picture.

  16. Joanne
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The new Vanity Fair (with a bizarre Tiger Woods on the cover) has an article about a creation museum in Kentucky that claims the earth is 6000 years old, that dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark, and other interesting things. The article is not well written but worth reading for anyone who wants to know what misinformation is spread to Chrisitan believers. As the article states, the museum ignores research in history, archaeology, fossils, all sciences, etc.

  17. EOS
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Joanne –

    You are spreading misinformation. Many who read these posts have already been to the Creation Museum. There were even photos posted. The museum has displays that incorporate history, archaeology, fossils, and the sciences. It also has a planetarium, displays of Darwin’s finches, and an extensive bookstore. Attendance figures have widely exceeded expectations. If a person is to express beliefs different from those widely held, they must first understand those widely held beliefs. Christians are not unschooled in evolution. They know the details of what is being taught as “evolutionary fact” to a far greater extent than those who blindly accept it without question, or sadly, without any real comprehension. Did you know that archaeologists have found cave drawings from multiple cultures that depict humans being chased by dinosaurs? Did you know that dinosaur bones have recently been discovered that were not only unfossilized, but had intact tissue fragments attached? Did you know that archeologists have never discovered a single intact hominoid fossil? Did you know that most hominoid pictures were drawn based on finding fossil fragments as small as a fragment of a single jawbone? Did you ever research the evidence for evolution yourself?

  18. Posted January 24, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Quote: Unfortunately, middle school kids don’t remember Heather Locklear from TJ Hooker.

    They don’t remember Purple Rain, either. My principal, aides & I started discussing the finer points of the movie and the subsequent “careers” of Apollonia and Vanity (who wasn’t in the movie, of course, but still). I’ve never seen my 7th graders clear out of my room so fast.

  19. Curt Waugh
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    EOS, your bellicose humility and the intense breadth of your knowledge is inspiring.

    Those weren’t cave paintings, by the way. That was The Flintstones.

  20. Peter Larson
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink


    For evidence, you only need to look as far as Scotland for the coexistence of dinosaurs and man.

  21. Posted January 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Joanne, I’ve written a bunch about the Creationism Museum in the past. If you’re interested in reading any of those posts, just click here, and you’ll find a list.

  22. Anonymatt
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Cheetahs also went through a genetic bottleneck.

  23. aa911911
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    wow people in 2010 dont belive in creation. crazy, not just my opinion but the catholic church and the pope. nut jobs.

  24. Me
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Believe me, Anonymatt, I know how the cheetahs feel, but I am calling mine a midlife crisis.
    But the NYT story is saying that if the genetic research applies to all the human population across the land at the time and there was interbreeding between the groups, then there was no bottleneck. It is just that human population was just not strong enough to completely destroy all other megapredators and devour all the earth’s resources at the expense of their own children and the poorest of the human population until agriculture.

  25. Me
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Or did I read it wrong?

  26. EOS
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    The “scientific” article draws its conclusions after polling just two individuals. Perhaps the sample size may lead to error?

    And it assumes that viruses insert their sequences at a constant rate. And any sequences inserted into essential coding regions are ignored, since they would be lethal to the organism.

    And that these non-coding sequences that make up the majority of the genome have absolutely no function, yet all are retained through tens of thousands of generations with absolutely no copying errors.

    Sorry, but the best scientists are not even sure of the correct sequences for these non-coding regions, yet that doesn’t prevent “evolutionists” from claiming that they prove their theory.

  27. Joanne
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    EOS, I was merely letting people know about the Vanity Fair article, not discussing the details on the subject and what is known and not known about creation and evolution. And yes, adding my editorial comments as to what I think about the issue. Thanks Mark for the link to your past posts.

  28. Posted February 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    That is fascinating. I must learn more about this *nods*

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