Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Paleoanthropology

pp 621-641


20 Population Genetics and Paleoanthropology

  • John H. Relethford


The study of population genetics can contribute to paleoanthropological research in three ways. First, the analysis of genetic variation in living human populations can provide information about past events, including the time and place of recent common ancestors, which when considered over many loci can give us clues regarding patterns of human evolution. Recent work in this area supports a view of several dispersions out of Africa, with the later two corresponding roughly to the appearance of the morphospecies Homo heidelbergensis and modern H. sapiens, but in both cases showing evidence of dispersions with admixture, rather than dispersions with replacement. Second, studies of ancient DNA, such as those conducted to date on Neandertal fossils, can potentially give us insight into ancient genetic variation and relationships among populations or taxa. Evidence to date suggests that Neandertals may have contributed little in overall ancestry to living humans, but it is still not clear whether they contributed nothing genetically. Third, mathematical models and simulations based on population genetic theory can help us formulate and refine hypotheses regarding human evolution by providing an idea of what patterns should be expected in the fossil record under alternative evolutionary scenarios.