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Did our human ancestors almost go extinct 900,000 years ago?

Did our human ancestors face near-extinction 900,000 years ago?

Human Ancestors Extinct
Image Source: Shutterstock @Gorodenkoff

In a twist that sounds straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, nearly a million years ago, humanity’s ancestors faced a cataclysmic event that nearly wiped them off the cosmic map. Genomic data gleaned from the DNA of 3,154 modern-day humans paints a jaw-dropping picture: the population plummeted from a hearty 100,000 to a mere 1,280 breeding individuals around 900,000 years ago. Talk about an astronomical population nosedive, a jaw-dropping 98.7 percent plummet that stretched out over a mind-boggling 117,000 years, a cosmic blink that could have easily spelled the end of our kind.

But guess what? We’re here, and we’re thriving, which tells us that our ancient ancestors managed to pull off a cosmic Houdini act. This incredible revelation comes courtesy of a team led by genetic heavyweights Haipeng Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Yi-Hsuan Pan of East China Normal University. These genetic wizards are not only giving us mind-blowing insights into our ancient past but also filling in a puzzling gap in the human fossil record from the Pleistocene era.

Anthropologist Giorgio Manzi of Sapienza University of Rome chimes in, “You see, this bottleneck in the Early Stone Age, well, it lines up perfectly with a conspicuous absence of fossil evidence in Africa and Eurasia during that very time. Coincidence? I think not!”

But let’s be clear, folks: population bottlenecks, those brutal population downsizings, aren’t exactly rare in the annals of history. When Mother Earth throws her cosmic curveballs like wars, famines, or climate crises, it’s the survivors who end up dealing with the genetic aftermath. Just think about it: a mere 7,000 years ago, there was another population bottleneck in the Northern Hemisphere. But the deeper we dig into the past, the murkier it gets, like trying to find a needle in a cosmic haystack.

Now, for this latest jaw-dropping analysis, our scientific dream team cooked up a brand-new method called the “fast infinitesimal time coalescent process” or FitCoal for short. Why? Because they wanted to sidestep the pesky numerical errors that usually trip up researchers when they’re untangling ancient genetic knots. It’s all about making the impossible possible, folks!

So, what did they find? Drumroll, please! After analyzing the DNA of 3,154 people from all corners of the globe, representing 10 African and 40 non-African populations, their results scream “Eureka!” A population bottleneck for the ages, happening from around 930,000 to 813,000 years ago, with a genetic diversity loss that would make your jaw drop—up to 65.85 percent!

Now, onto the million-dollar question: what caused this cosmic crunch? While we can’t time-travel to get the full scoop, one major player on the cosmic stage was the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, a time when Earth’s icy antics took a dramatic turn. Think of it as a cosmic rollercoaster of glaciation cycles, and our ancestors were just trying to hang on for dear life. Famine and conflict might have joined the party, throwing humanity’s numbers into a tailspin.

Yi-Hsuan Pan offers a tantalizing glimpse into the cosmic enigma: “This discovery opens Pandora’s box, raising questions about where these survivors lived, how they braved the cataclysmic climate changes, and whether the bottleneck supercharged our brain’s evolution.”

But that’s not all, folks! This bottleneck might have a hidden hand in another cosmic twist: the fusion of two chromosomes, giving birth to chromosome 2. You see, humans boast 23 pairs of chromosomes, while our great ape cousins flaunt 24. The formation of chromosome 2 appears to have been our cosmic ticket to ride, sending us on a unique evolutionary journey.

But the adventure’s just beginning, as Haipeng Li reminds us, “These findings are just the tip of the cosmic iceberg. Our quest is to dive deeper into the mysteries of human evolution during the Early to Middle Pleistocene transition, unveiling the cosmic secrets of our early ancestors.” Buckle up, cosmic explorers; the journey’s just getting started!

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