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Arabian DNA Shows Route of Early Human Migration from Africa

Arabian DNA
An Arabic miniature painting showing Al Harith, a king of the Ghassanids, pre-Islamic Arab Christians who lived on the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire. New DNA research shows that Africans migrated through ancient Arabia on their way out of the continent. Credit: DIRECTMEDIA/Public Domain

Confirming what researchers have believed for many years, but hadn’t been able to prove definitively, recent DNA testing suggests that ancient Arabia indeed served as a “cornerstone” for early human migration out of Africa.

In the largest-ever study of human genomes in the Arab world, the study was able to pinpoint the most ancient of all Middle Eastern populations, allowing researchers to trace very early human migration patterns, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

In the study, published online on Oct. 12 in the journal Nature Communications, the findings state that the area served as a key crossroads in the migration of peoples out of Africa.

DNA from the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were sampled in order to determine the ancient pathways humans took across these vast lands in their journeys so long ago.

Using recent archaeological and fossil evidence, the researchers were able to piece together and DNA findings to put the pieces of the puzzle together for the first time.

The new research constituted the first-ever large-scale analysis of the DNA of any Middle Eastern population, examining the genetics of 6,218 adults who had been recruited at random from Qatari health databases.

Then the researchers compared the results with the DNA not only of people living in other areas of the modern world but also, crucially, the DNA from ancient humans who had once lived across Africa, Europe and Asia.

Arabian DNA part of first-ever major study

Younes Mokrab, the head of the medical and population genomics lab at Sidra Medicine in Doha, Qatar, told interviewers from Live Science “This study is the first large-scale study on an Arab population.”

Mokrab, the co-senior author of the scientific paper, added that “Arab ancestry is a key ancestral component in many modern populations. This means what would be discovered in this region would have direct implications to populations elsewhere.”

Interestingly, the new findings appear to indicate that the ancestors of peoples from the Arabian Peninsula split from the early Africans approximately 90,000 years ago. This is also the time that the ancestors of Europeans and South Asians diverged from early Africans, which the researchers believe shows that ancient peoples migrated from Africa to the rest of the world by way of Arabia.

“Arabia is a cornerstone in the early migrations out of Africa,” Mokrab declared of the results of the study.

About 50,000 years after that divergence, peoples living on the Arabian Peninsula appeared to split from their ancestral European forbears about 42,000 years ago. Likewise another split happened when South Asian populations diverged from the Arabian peoples approximately 32,000 years ago.

Mokrab explains that before this Arabian DNA study “Previously, Arab populations were considered to arise from broad European populations.”

After modern humans (belonging to our Homo sapiens lineage) left Africa, they met with ​​— and sometimes of course interbred with — peoples of other now-extinct human lineages.

These would include not only the well-known Neanderthals but the newly-discovered peoples known as the Denisovans, whose ancestors left Africa long before modern humans. These peoples were found almost exclusively in Europe and Asia, and Denisovan DNA is in all Asiatic-derived peoples today — even including Native Americans.

As many people have discovered themselves by doing genetic testing through the 23 and Me company and others, all people other than Africans have some Neanderthal genes even today.

“The timelines discovered in our study for when Arabs diverged from other populations explain why Neanderthal DNA is far rarer in Arab populations than in populations that later mixed with ancient hominins,” Mokrab explains.

Fascinatingly the group of researchers discovered a unique group of Arabs who live on the Arabian Peninsula itself are the most ancient of all modern Middle Eastern peoples, according to Mokrab.

The scientists discovered that a unique group of peninsular Arabs may be the most ancient of all modern Middle Eastern populations, Mokrab said, after making comparisons between modern human genomes with samples of ancient DNA.

People belonging to this group could be the closest relatives of the earliest-known farmers and hunter-gatherers who lived in the ancient Middle East.

Of course, over the course of time, there were subsequent divergences of Arab populations, with the ancestors of modern Arabs splitting off from one another 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, the scientists found.

This was no doubt due to the changes in climate that have occurred over the millennia, with Arabis becoming drier over time. Some peoples groups moved to more fertile areas, settling previously virgin territory; but others continued to live in the incredibly arid region, changing their ways and adapting to nomadic lifestyles to stay alive, the researchers state.

The study also uncovered what the scientists say are high rates of inbreeding in some peninsular Arab peoples that dated back far into ancient times. This, they believe, is the result of the tribal nature of these cultures, which often forbade intermarrying outside the tribe.

Importantly, the new DNA study can shed light on how the mutations that occur with inbreeding can be addressed in the future.

Inbreeding can result in rare mutations that increase the risk of disease, so the findings could help reveal the causes of some genetic disorders, helping medical researchers to create new diagnostic tools and treatments for diseases in the communities that were represented in the study, according to the researchers.

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