The Y-Chromosomal Adam: Our Forefathers Before Forefathers

Michael Ahn

The Y-Chromosomal “Adam”: Our Forefathers Before Forefathers

            Before the emergence of groundbreaking evidence siding with today’s dominant theory on the origin of early Homo sapiens sapiens, there existed two competing theories of vastly different postulates on the temporal and geographical spread of the human population.  In 1988, Milford H. Wolpoff proposed the multiregional hypothesis in which populations of Homo erectus migrated to all reaches of the globe 2.5 million years ago and had all continually evolved into modern Homo sapiens in their respective geographical locations, including European H. sapiens evolving from Neanderthals.  The other hypothesis, widely known as the Recent Out-of-Africa model and first published in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, describes the separation of archaic Homo sapiens in Africa 200,00 years ago from Homo erectus and the migration of early humans migrating from Africa into Europe and Asia about 60,000 years ago.  One of the groundbreaking evidence to garner a consensus on the Out-of-Africa hypothesis has been the identification, via methods of molecular biology and genetics, of the most recent common ancestor for all living Homo sapiens sapiens: the Y-Chromosomal “Adam” for all living males and the Mitochondrial Eve for all living humans.  This paper will be describing the importance of the Y- Chromosomal Adam alongside comparisons with the Mitochondrial Eve.
            All living male humans inhabiting the Earth have been determined to have descended from Y- Chromosomal Adam, the most recent common ancestor for the paternal lines of the human family tree based on the genetic identification provided by the Y-chromosome.  The Y-chromosome is a conservative sex-determining chromosome that is inherited intact only by sons and any mutation that occurs in the 60 million base pairs is also passed down to generations. Dr. Spencer Wells, head geneticist for The Genographic Project and author of The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, has been traveling the world and mapping the Y-chromosomes of indigenous populations as well as the migration of archaic DNA temporally and geographically.  Well’s has pinpointed a mutation in the Y-chromosome tracing back to a male Homo sapiens who lived in Africa about 60,000 years ago, a mutation that is seen in every male today including the numerous descendents of Mongol conquer Genghis Khan and all Western Europeans.  This discovery of the father of this modern world’s family tree has lead researchers to coin him the scientific “Adam” after the Biblical first man of Genesis and the procreator of early Biblical civilization.  Issues with the naming of the discovery aside for later discussion, the genetic markers used in the DNA has further elucidated the pathway and time-line of the Out-of-Africa model and decisively refuting the multiregional hypothesis, putting the exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa at around 50,000 years ago and well after the emergence of the H. sapiens species 200,000 years ago.  (Well’s further postulates that the Australian Aborigines were descendents of the first migration out of Africa.)
            While this is an extremely insightful glimpse into the facts behind early human history, it also yields grounds for quick and misleading assumptions about the narrative.  I was viewing a National Geographic documentary on the work of Spencer Wells and the Y-chromosomal Adam; it was titled DNA Mysteries – The Search for Adam.  From the very beginning, the narrator sets the stage for the possible melding of scientific genealogy and religious beliefs on creation according to the Bible, impossibility in itself but nonetheless mentioned in the same sentence.  Throughout the documentary, depictions of Adam from the Renaissance appear as if the riddle to crack was that he is often portrayed as Caucasian and light skinned in the Garden of a lush green Eden when in fact the “scientific Adam” is actually African in origin and lived somewhere in the grasslands of Tanzania.  Only at the very end does it rule out the misleading notion that this 60,000 year old Homo sapiens was the first man ever to walk the earth and bear children when, of course, there was a large population of males bearing offspring during the same age; “Adam’s” lineage just happens to still exist and continue today while the other lines died out later. 
The documentary also makes the mistake of clarifying that the bearer of the most recent common ancestor (MRC) title is never permanent as long as new genetic markers reveal even older common mutations in human DNA as proven by the Mitochondrial Eve.  Though the matrilineal MRC ancestor was never mentioned in the documentary, probably to avoid confusion with the Genesis reference, the Mitochondrial Eve was the mother of all living humans today and dated to have existed 200,000 years ago at the dawn of Homo sapiens in East Africa (again, among other females).  As this veers from Genesis telling of Eve arising from the rib of Adam (which would be reason enough to change the naming of these individuals), it also raises important points about the genetic context behind tracing lineages.  Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is very well conserved from generation to generation, inherited from the mother.  As long as the current human population continues to breed with females then their entire lineage can be traced back to a single mother with an approximate date based on the number of mutations, each mutation occurring every 3500 years.  Contrast to maternal lineages, paternal lineages are more prone to die out under environmental pressure and population bottlenecks since they rely on sons to continue their lines.
Circumscribing the discovery of these recent common ancestors with the story of Genesis and placing loaded names of Adam, Eve and Eden among the important pieces of scientific evidence undermines the whole investigation for truth beyond faith based theories by narrowing the scope and discussion of the Y-chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve.  These ancestors are not the permanent origins of our lines, they are not the first humans, they were not the only humans, and they certainly did not live during the same era.  Perhaps the Y-chromosomal Adam was an alpha dog, a quick learner, skilled hunter, a leader possessed with many tactful skills but apart from a larger brain these attributes cannot be passed on in DNA since they are adaptive traits.  One must remember that evolution is a complex equation balancing absolute luck in genetic mutations and environmental pressures selecting for or against those mutations at the right time, and human lineages are no exception to these laws of nature. 
            Finally, the ability for science to constantly unveil the clandestine past of human history is nothing less than astounding.  Technological advances in molecular biology as well as innovative concepts in genetics has allowed for continually drafted map of human migration.  It is a reminder of our humble beginnings and at some deeply rooted level we are all related. 
Weiss, G. (1996). "Estimating the Age of the Common Ancestor of Men from the ZFY Intron". Science 272: 1359

Vecchio, Salvatore F.  DNA Mysteries: The Search for Adam.  National Geographic, 46 minutes. 2005

Soares, P; Ermini, L; Thomson, N; Mormina, M; Rito, T; Röhl, A; Salas, A; Oppenheimer, S et al. (June 2009), "Correcting for purifying selection: an improved human mitochondrial molecular clock", American Journal of Human Genetics 84 (6): 740–59

“Human Evolution: the Proper Study of Mankind”. The Economist. Dec. 24th, 2005.

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