Opportunities for anatomically modern humans to have left Africa

Key ages of early H. sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans (credit: Delson, 2019; Fig. 1)

For almost 2 million years humans have migrated long distances, the earliest example of a move out of Africa being the Georgian Homo erectus specimens (see: First out of Africa? November 2003). As regards H. sapiens – anatomically modern humans (AMH) – the earliest fossils, found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, are about 300 ka old. By 260 ka they were present at several sites that span the African continent. The first sign of AMH having left Africa are fossils found at Mislaya in Israel and Apidima in Greece – dated to 177 and 210 to 170 ka respectively – and 125 ka-old tools tentatively attributed to AMH in the Arabian Peninsula (see: Arabia : staging post for human migrations?, September 2014). There is also genetically dated evidence of geneflow from Homo sapiens into Neanderthal DNA between 130 to 250 ka ago. The evidence for an early ‘Out of Africa’ migration by AMH is concrete but very sparse, a fuller story of our permanently colonising all habitable parts of the world only emerging for times after about 65 ka.

It is easy to appreciate that the main hindrance for palaeo-anthropological research into human migration centres on the issue of where to look for evidence, a great many discoveries owing more to luck than to a strategic approach. And, of course, once interesting sites are found researchers congregate there. There is a limited number of active palaeoanthropologists of whom only a proportion engage regularly in field exploration. And there is also an element of the old gold prospectors adage: ‘If you want to find elephants, go to elephant country’! But there are other issues connected with discoveries. When was it possible for AMH to make transcontinental journeys and what routes would have been feasible from time to time? Robert Beyer of the Cambridge University with scientists from New Zealand, Estonia and the UK have devised a rational approach to the questions of optimum times and routes for major migration (Beyer, R.M., et al. 2021. Climatic windows for human migration out of Africa in the past 300,000 yearsNature Communications, v.  12, article 4889; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24779-1). Just two routes out of Africa have been considered feasible: by crossing the Strait of Bab el Mandab from Djibouti and southern Eritrea to the Yemen, and following the Nile northwards to access Eurasia via the Levant. The first depends to some extent on how wide the Strait was; depending on sea level fluctuations, it has varied from 4 to 20 km during the last 300 ka. Exit by way of both routes would also have depended on vegetation, game and drinking water supplies that varying amounts of rainfall would have supported.

Assessing the feasibility of crossing the southern Red Sea at different times is fairly easy. Sea level fluctuates according to the amount of water locked in the ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland and on the land glaciated during ice ages in northern North America and Scandinavia. Oxygen isotopes in Pleistocene sea-floor sediments and today’s ice caps reveal that variation. Being one of the world’s most important seaways the bathymetry of the Red Sea is known in considerable detail. At present the minimum sea distance needed to cross the Strait of Bab el Mandab is about 21 km. At the lowest sea levels during the Pleistocene the sea journey was reduced to slightly less than 5 km, which would not have required sophisticated boats or seafaring skills. There is evidence that AMH and earlier humans occupied the western shore of the Red Sea to use its rich marine resources, but none for boats or for habitation of the Yemeni coastline. However, calculations by Beyer et al. of sea level fluctuations during the last 300 ka show that for more than half that time the sea crossing was less than 7 km thanks to a shallow continental shelf and a very narrow stretch of deep water. Clearly the varying width of the Strait is not a useful guide to windows of opportunity for migration via that route. Except for warm interglacials and a few interstadials, people could have crossed at any time provided that the ecosystems on either side could sustain them.

Annual precipitation during each millennium of the Late Pleistocene for the two most likely out-of-Africa routes. The double green lines show the lower level of tolerance for hunter gatherers. The percentage of decades during which ANH could sustain themselves is colour-coded in blues. (Credit: Beyer et al. Fig 2)

Turning to climatic fluctuations, especially that of rainfall, Beyer et al. first estimated the lowest rainfall that hunter-gatherers can survive from the distribution of surviving groups according to annual precipitation and the biomass of grazing prey animals in their habitats. The lower limit is about 90 mm per year. Using the climate record for the Late-Pleistocene from proxies, such as oxygen isotopes, in global climate modelling produces a series of high-resolution ‘time-lapse snapshots’ of conditions in the geographic areas of interest – the Nile-Levant route and that from the Horn of Africa to Yemen. The results are expressed as the percentage of decades in each thousand-year interval that hunter-gatherers could sustain themselves under prevailing climatic conditions in the two regions. What seems clear from the figure (above) is that the southern, Bab el Mandab route had considerable potential for AMH migrants. The northern one looks as if it was more risky, as might be expected from today’s dominant aridity away from the Mediterranean and Gulf coasts. The northern route seems to have been just about feasible for these periods: 245-230; 220-210; 206-197; 132-94; 85-82; ~75 and ~72 ka. The climatic windows for possible migration via the southern route are: ~290; 275-240 (with optimums at ~273, ~269, ~246 and ~243); 230-210; 203-200; 182-145; 135-118; 112; 107; 70-30; 18-13 ka. The well documented beginning of major AMH migration into Eurasia was around 75 to 60 ka, which the southern route would most favour on climatic grounds. Yet before that there are many possibilities involving either route. Any AMH finds outside Africa before 250, and between 190-133 ka seem almost certain to have been via the southern route, based on arid conditions in the north. But, of course, there would have been other factors at play encouraging or deterring migration via either route. So perhaps not every climatic opportunity was exploited.

Beyer and colleagues have provided a basis for plenty of discussion and shifts in focus for future palaeo-anthropological work. One thing to bear in mind is that different humans may also have taken up the opportunities; for example, some Neanderthals are now suspected to have migrated back to Africa in the last 300 ka.

See also: Groucutt, H.S  and 22 others 2021. Multiple hominin dispersals into Southwest Asia over the past 400,000 years. Nature, ; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03863-y