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Following genetic footprints out of Africa

A new study, using genetic analysis to look for clues about human migration, suggests that the first modern humans settled in Arabia on their way from the Horn of Africa to the rest of the world.

Led by the University of Leeds and the University of Porto in Portugal, the study is published today in American Journal of Human Genetics and provides intriguing insight into the earliest stages of modern human migration, say the researchers.

"A major unanswered question regarding the dispersal of modern humans around the world concerns the geographical site of the first steps out of Africa," explains Dr Luísa Pereira from the Institute of Molecular Pathology and Immunology of the University of Porto (IPATIMUP). "One popular model predicts that the early stages of the dispersal took place across the Red Sea to southern Arabia, but direct genetic evidence has been thin on the ground."

The international research team, which included colleagues from across Europe, Arabia and North Africa, analysed three of the earliest non-African maternal lineages. These early branches are associated with the time period when modern humans first successfully moved out of Africa.

Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, which traces the female line of descent and is useful for comparing relatedness between different populations, the researchers compared complete genomes from Arabia and the Near East with a database of hundreds more samples from Europe. They found evidence for an ancient ancestry within Arabia.

Professor Martin Richards of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "The timing and pattern of the migration of early modern humans has been a source of much debate and research.  Our new results suggest that Arabia, rather than North Africa or the Near East, was the first staging-post in the spread of modern humans around the world."

The research was funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, the Leverhulme Trust, and the DeLaszlo Foundation.

Further information from:

Professor Martin Richards, School of Applied Sciences, University of Huddersfield, Queensgate, Huddersfield, HD1 3DH. Tel: 01484-471676; m.b.richards@hud.ac.uk

Dr Luísa Pereira, IPATIMUP (Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto) lpereira@ipatimup.pt

Alternatively, please contact Jo Kelly, Campus PR, Tel 0113 357 2103, Mob 07980 267756, email jo@campuspr.co.uk

Notes for Editors:

  1. Copies of the paper, titled The Arabian cradle: Mitochondrial relicts of the first steps along the southern route out of Africa are available from Cell Press. Please contact Mary Beth O'Leary or Lisa Lyons on press@cell.com  +1 617-397-2802. 
  2. Professor Martin Richards is the UK's only Professor of Archaeogenetics.  He is now based at the University of Huddersfield  and retains a Visiting Chair at the University of Leeds. Archaeogenetics is the use of genetic data to address questions concerning archaeology and human evolution. His research has focused on studies of mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome, and how results of these studies can inform our knowledge of prehistoric patterns of migration.
  3. The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi :10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk

    The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK with more than 30,000 students from 130 countries. With a turnover approaching £450m, Leeds is one of the top ten research universities in the UK, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. It was placed 80th in the 2007 Times Higher Education world universities league table. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk