Scrutinizing the DNA of 938 people from 51 distinct populations around the world, geneticists have created a detailed map of how humans spread from their home base in sub-Saharan Africa to populate the farthest reaches of the globe over the last 100,000 years.
The pattern of genetic mutations, to be published today in the journal Science, offers striking evidence that an ancient band of explorers left what is now Ethiopia and - along with their descendants - went on to colonize North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, southern and central Asia, Australia and its surrounding islands, the Americas and East Asia.
A second analysis based on some of the same DNA samples corroborated the results. Those findings, published Thursday in the journal Nature, demonstrated that the greater the geographic distance between a population and its African ancestors, the more changes had accumulated in its genes.
The story of human migration revealed by DNA "complements what's known through history, linguistics or anthropology," said Jun Li, the University of Michigan human geneticist who led the Science study.
Both research groups relied on DNA from blood samples collected by anthropologists worldwide as part of the Human Genome Diversity Project, a controversial effort from the mid 1990s to gather genetic specimens from thousands of populations.
"Instead of saying a particular person's genome is from Africa, this ... data allows us to say which part of Africa they were from," said Andrew Singleton, senior author of the Nature report.
In both studies, the researchers analyzed more than a half-million single-letter changes among the approximately 3-billion As, Cs, Ts and Gs that make up the human genome. Those changes - called "single nucleotide polymorphisms," or SNPs - begin as random mutations and accumulate over time as they are passed from one generation to the next.
Each time a group left its home territory to found a new population, the migration ultimately led to a unique pattern of SNPs. Comparing those patterns, the researchers showed migrations originated from a single location near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.