- At some point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago, the population size of Homo sapiens plummeted, thanks to cold, dry climate conditions that left much of our ancestors’ African homeland uninhabitable. Everyone alive today is descended from a group of people from a single region who survived this catastrophe.
- The southern coast of Africa would have been one of the few spots where humans could survive during this climate crisis, because it harbors an abundance of shellfish and edible plants.
- Excavations of a series of sites in this region have recovered items left behind by what may have been that progenitor population.
- The discoveries confirm the idea that advanced cognitive abilities evolved earlier than previously thought—and may have played a key role in the survival of the species during tough times.
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With the global population of humans currently approaching seven billion, it is difficult to imagine that Homo sapiens was once an endangered species. Yet studies of the DNA of modern-day people indicate that, once upon a time, our ancestors did in fact undergo a dramatic population decline. Although scientists lack a precise timeline for the origin and near extinction of our species, we can surmise from the fossil record that our forebears arose throughout Africa shortly before 195,000 years ago. Back then the climate was mild and food was plentiful; life was good. But around 195,000 years ago, conditions began to deteriorate. The planet entered a long glacial stage known as Marine Isotope Stage 6 (MIS6) that lasted until roughly 123,000 years ago.
A detailed record of Africa’s environmental conditions during glacial stage 6 does not exist, but based on more recent, better-known glacial stages, climatologists surmise that it was almost certainly cool and arid and that its deserts were probably significantly expanded relative to their modern extents. Much of the landmass would have been uninhabitable. While the planet was in the grip of this icy regime, the number of people plummeted perilously—from more than 10,000 breeding individuals to just hundreds. Estimates of exactly when this bottleneck occurred and how small the population became vary among genetic studies, but all of them indicate that everyone alive today is descended from a small population that lived in one region of Africa sometime during this global cooling phase.
This article was originally published with the title When the Sea Saved Humanity.