Searching for traces of the Southern Dispersal: environmental and historical research on the evolution of human diversity in southern Asia and Australo-Melanesia

Marta Mirazón Lahr, Mike Petraglia, Stephen Stokes, Julie Field, 2010

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Marta Mirazón Lahr, Mike Petraglia, Stephen Stokes, Julie Field (2010) Searching for traces of the Southern Dispersal: environmental and historical research on the evolution of human diversity in southern Asia and Australo-Melanesia [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]


The last decade of research into the origins of modern humans has produced much evidence in support for a last common ancestral population in Africa in the recent past - within the last 150,000 years. One of the most intriguing aspects of a recent African origin of modern humans is the spatial and temporal pattern of differentiation of non-African populations.

All sources of data available to reconstruct such a history of population differentiation point to heterogeneous spatial and temporal patterns. The prehistoric record shows asynchronous modern human occupation of Eurasia, with dates from Australia somewhat older than those from the Levant and Europe. Furthermore, the character of the archaeological record of these early dispersing humans is strikingly different in southeast Asia-Australo/Melanesia and Western Asia/Europe. In terms of morphology, the record is much more scarce, although significant differences between early fossils in Europe and Australia can be observed. These differences can be explained in two ways. On the one hand, it is possible that a single human population dispersed out of Africa and that differentiation occurred in Asia prior to subsequent expansion to the East (southeast Asia-Australo/Melanesia) and Northwest (Eurasia). On the other, more than one African population could have dispersed to Eurasia, magnifying their pre-existing African differences in the process. These different explanations have been put forward as alternative hypotheses for the first dispersal of modern humans out of Africa:

  1. Modern humans evolved in Africa in the late Middle Pleistocene/earliest Upper Pleistocene, where they remained until the expansion of a population associated with a sophisticated stone tool industry (the Upper Palaeolithic) throughout Eurasia around 45,000 years ago. This would represent the only major dispersal of modern humans out of Africa from which all non-African populations derive (Klein, 1999).
  2. Modern humans evolved in Africa in the late Middle Pleistocene/earliest Upper Pleistocene, followed by a significant pan-African expansion during isotope Stage 5 that established regional human populations throughout the continent. One of these populations expanded between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago from the Horn of Africa, across the strait of Bab el Mandeb, along the southern Asian coast, and eventually into southeast Asia and Australia. Another one expanded between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago from northeast Africa to the Levant and subsequently Eurasia, associated with a sophisticated stone tool industry (the Upper Palaeolithic) (Lahr & Foley, 1994, 1998; Lahr, 1996).

Neither of these hypotheses finds comprehensive support in the currently known palaeoanthropological record. Therefore, all scientific efforts at trying to elucidate the process by which the first human populations colonised Eurasia have to attempt to build models that include the causes of dispersal (Northwest and East African palaeoecology, human demography), the conditions and constraints at the time of dispersal (palaeoenvironment, geography, demography, subsistence), as well as the consequences (the biological and cultural differentiation of Eurasian peoples), and test such models against the available data. This project aimed to model of one of the scenarios described above, namely that of multiple dispersals out of Africa, by focusing on the viability of a Southern Dispersal Route from East Africa to southern Asia and eventually Australo-Melanesia, independent of human expansions into mainland Eurasia.

This project thus addresses four major scientific issues with four aims:

  1. To investigate the palaeoenvironmental context for a Southern Dispersal Route out of Africa by establishing the nature of the palaeoenvironment (including sea-levels) along southern Asia during Stage 4;
    Objective: To build palaeoenvironmental maps for the southern Asian coastal areas based on sea-level reconstructions and the compilation of palaeoecological data into a palaeoenvironmental archive.
  2. To study the morphology of present and past populations along the suggested route with the explicit intent of testing their similarities and differences through time;
    Objective: To carry out a comparative study of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene human fossil record of East Africa, India and Australia, involving the collection of new data, as well as the compilation of existing data into a comprehensive palaeobiological archive for these regions.
  3. To study aspects of the Middle Palaeolithic record of Saudi Arabia and India, including the dating of key archaeological sites and palaeoenvironmental features;
    Objective: To date Middle Palaeolithic stratigraphic sequences in India and palaeolake sediments associated with Middle Palaeolithic industries in the Arabian Peninsula through SAR optical dating (Murray & Wintle 2000, Stokes et al. 2001) and to carry out a comparative study of the early Middle Palaeolithic archaeological record of the Arabian Peninsula and Indian coast.
  4. To explore the pattern of population movement (direction, rate, permanency) along the hypothesised route through geographically and demographically explicit simulations of population expansions from Africa to southern Asia.
    Objective: To carry out geographically specific simulations of population movement along the hypothesised route, altering demographic and ecological parameters.


Klein R. (1999) The Human Career. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Lahr MM & Foley RA (1994) Multiple dispersals and modern human origins. Evolutionary Anthrop. 3:48-60Klein RG (1995) Anatomy, behaviour and modern human origins. Journal of World Prehistory 9:167-198.

Lahr MM & Foley RA (1998) Towards a theory of modern human origins: Geography, demography, and diversity in recent human evolution. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, Vol 41 - 1998 41:137-176.

Lahr MM (1996) The evolution of human diversity. Cambridge: CUP.

Murray AS & Wintle AG (2000) Luminescence dating of quartz using an improved single-aliquot regenerative-dose protocol. Radiation Measurements, 32 (1): 57-73.

Stokes S et al. (2001) An Empirical evaluation of SAAD and SAR Procedures. Radiation Measurements, 32: 585-594.