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The Journey of Early Humans Leaving Africa Reveals a Key Migration Point

New research uncovers the journey of early humans from Africa, revealing the Persian Plateau as a key migration point before spreading to Europe and Asia.

By Sara Novak
Jun 7, 2024 3:00 PM
(Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)


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We know that humans evolved in Africa from our ape-like ancestors, starting around 6 million years ago. We came down from the trees, began to walk upright, found fire, hunted and gathered, constructed weapons and tools, and then some of us migrated out of Africa.

In time, Homo sapiens spread all over the world and became the only remaining hominins after Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago.

But while we know that H. sapiens started in Africa before populating the rest of the planet, for a long time, we didn’t know where they went when they first left. But now, new research is uncovering details about life after Africa.

Where in Africa Did Humans Originate?

A new study published in Nature uses genomic evidence to show that humans first landed on the Persian Plateau between 60,000 years and 70,000 years ago but didn’t spread into the rest of Europe and Asia until around 45,000 years ago. Luca Pagani, lead study author and an anthropologist at the University of Padova in Padova, Italy, wanted to know what happened during that 15,000-year period in between.

Researchers found that the area in and around the Persian Plateau, which became Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, served as an initial jumping-off point for the population of early humans who first left Africa.

Using modern and ancient genomes, Pagani and his team were able to show these were likely the first Europeans and East Asians. While there is no direct evidence from that time period, they were able to reconstruct the most likely genome and point to its geographical source.

Read More: Where Was the Birthplace of Modern Humans?

Why Early Humans Left Africa

We can’t know for sure why early humans left Africa and chose the Persian Plateau to land for the next 15,000 years. But it was likely pretty basic. They could go, so they did.

“At that time humans were still hunter-gatherers, they were likely following the animals they hunted and the plants that they could eat,” says Pagani.

If another area opened up without the competition of another human group, then it’s most likely that humans would go and explore that new area. There were no borders or countries, it was just about survival at all costs, says Pagani. Leaving the continent of Africa would likely have been just about moving into another territory.

The only borders at that time were natural, meaning that climate would have impacted human occupation. “Aridity played a role in where humans could go at that time,” says Pagani.

Read More: Why Did Early Humans Leave Africa?

How Humans Migrated Out of Africa

It’s likely that early humans would have left Africa in groups made up of a few dozen people through the Nile River corridor, which although it was arid, was always adjacent to a reliable water source. We also can’t rule out, says Pagani, that they reached Europe through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a strip of land that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

After spending around 15,000 years on the Persian Plateau, the first group that left landed in the modern-day Czech Republic but would later become extinct. We know this because their genome did not contribute to any modern populations, says Pagani. In fact, a number of human populations that left Africa did not survive. It was a time of much trial and error.

In the end, what amounts to several thousand early humans made the first leap toward a global population and while very few succeeded initially, eventually they would reach all corners of the planet. 

Read More: It's Official: Timeline For Human Migration Gets A Rewrite

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Sara Novak is a science journalist based in South Carolina. In addition to writing for Discover, her work appears in Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, Sierra Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and many more. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a candidate for a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, (expected graduation 2023).

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