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Royal Descents of famous people - Common ancestors of all humans


  Introduction

Skip the methodology and jump to the Conclusion

Discussion

CAs using Genetics

CAs using Archaeology

CAs using Mathematical models

CAs using Computer simulations


Common ancestors of all humans

by Mark Humphrys


It has been known since Darwin's work in the 19th century that all of humanity (indeed all of life) is on one family tree. In other words, there existed in the past animals who are common ancestors of all humans now living. What this page is about is when was the most recent common ancestor of all living humans. A number of new strands of evidence indicate it was surprisingly recent, even within recorded history.




The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (or Kheops or Cheops) reigned 2589 to 2566 BC,
built the Great Pyramid, and left a line that almost certainly did not die out.
Hence he is probably the ancestor of every human on earth today.
Image from here. More here.




Introduction


Definitions

Let us define the terms:
CA
Common Ancestor of all living humans - There are trillions of these, stretching from the origin of DNA-based life 4 to 3.5 billion years ago to a lot more recently - perhaps even within historical times, as we shall see. Most of these are pre-human animals, but the recent ones are human.

MRCA
Most Recent Common Ancestor of all living humans - This is a human, perhaps even within historical times, as we shall see.


Background reading

For ignorant reasons, the origins of life and humanity are often not discussed in schools, so you may need some background reading before you start:

The MRCA is human

[O'Connell, 1995] is wrong to suggest there is any doubt about the existence of CAs. Their existence is certain, as is the fact that the MRCA is human. The existence of genes for human abilities (e.g. language acquisition) in all humans is proof of this.




Ways to find the MRCA

In general, there are a number of ways to estimate the MRCA:
  1. Genetics - These suffer from the problem of only focusing on the ancestors from whom you have inherited DNA, not all your ancestors. You can descend from someone without having inherited their DNA at a specific location on the genome, or even without having inherited their DNA at all. By focusing only on common ancestry of DNA that gets inherited at a specific location on the genome, DNA studies push back the Common Ancestor much further than the MRCA. All CA's found in genetic studies will be much older than the MRCA. Why DNA can't tell us the MRCA.

  2. Archaeology - The MRCA does not imply any sort of population bottleneck at the time, or any sort of "first couple". The MRCA would have co-existed with a huge human population, many of which are ancestors of many, but not all, living people. In the future, these too will become CAs and there will be a new MRCA. Since the MRCA keeps changing, it is obvious that it does not have to exist at any important moment in the fossil record. The MRCA is a "statistical artefact", and is unlikely to be significant (or at all noticeable) in archaeology. Why Archaeology can't tell us the MRCA.

    The above 2 methods can't tell us the MRCA.

    The following 3 methods can, and they all agree. They all say the MRCA is in historical times:

  3. Mathematical models - These are better for looking at whether someone actually descends from someone else, irrespective of DNA. They suggest an MRCA in historical times, as recent as c. 1200 AD, if mating is random (we know that it is not). The main limitation of mathematical models is this issue - the difficulty of modelling in any clean way the complex, non-random mating patterns caused by geography, population movement, religion and social status. To model the quirks of the history and geography of the world, or just of the West, you really need a computer simulation.

    The other thing noted by mathematical models is that not much longer before the MRCA, everyone in the population is either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today.

    Non-random mating would push the MRCA further back. See following.

  4. Computer simulations - These can take into account all the quirks of local geography and history. These suggest that even with a high degree of non-random mating, the MRCA is still in historical times, perhaps c. 300 AD.

    If we restrict just to the West, rather than the whole world, then the MRCA comes forward: (a) because it is a smaller area, and: (b) because the West, with its constant intermarriage and migration, is closer to a random mating model than the world as a whole is, with its extreme geographical isolation like populations in Australia, the Pacific, etc. Hence the West will have a lot more recent MRCA than the world. See following.

  5. History - Genealogy, like my Royal Descents page. This has the problem of only focusing on the ancestors for whom records survived, not all your ancestors. However, despite the sketchy records, it still provides strong support for the suggestions above from mathematical models and computer simulations of an MRCA in historical times. The huge number of proven descents of people from common European royal ancestry in historical times, when considered with the vastly greater number of descents that must exist but are not among the rare few that can be proven, suggest strongly that everyone, in the West at least, is descended from an MRCA in historical times. They suggest, for example, that everyone in the West is descended from Charlemagne, c. 800 AD.



Conclusion

The conclusion of the above lines of evidence is the following.

The world

  1. It would seem possible that, even with a lot of geographical separation, the MRCA of the entire world is still within historical times, 3000 BC - 1000 AD.

  2. Quite likely the entire world is descended from the Ancient Egyptian royal house, c. 1600 BC.

    We pick them as an example because they left proven descents for centuries, so it seems likely their descents did not die out, and they are ancestors of some people alive today. Hence probably ancestors of all people alive today.


The interbreeding world

  1. The MRCA of almost all of the world is in historical times, quite possibly in classical times, even AD.

    By "almost all" I mean over 90 percent of the world, including all of the West, almost all of Asia, and most of Africa. Only cases of extreme geographical isolation could prevent this being the whole world, leaving some aboriginal populations out of this recent family tree. If populations were truly geographically isolated for thousands of years then the MRCA of the entire world may be thousands of years ago. Though even that is not certain since there has been a certain amount of interbreeding since these populations were re-contacted in the last few hundred years. And we only need a small amount of interbreeding to get everyone descended from Europeans. That is, we just need to get them genealogically descended, even if it doesn't show in the DNA - even if the European DNA has been swamped by the rest.

  2. Quite likely almost everyone in the world descends from Confucius, c. 500 BC.

    We pick him as an example because he is the proven ancestor of some people alive today. Hence probably the ancestor of all people alive today.


The West

  1. The MRCA of the West is in historical times, quite possibly as recent as 1000 AD.

  2. Quite likely everyone in the West descends from Charlemagne, c. 800 AD.

    We pick him as an example because he is the proven ancestor of some people alive today (for example, he is a proven ancestor of my children). Hence probably the ancestor of all people alive today. By the same reasoning, as well as from Continental/pre-Norman figures like Charlemagne, quite likely everyone in the West descends from figures like:


This is not about DNA (Genealogy is not Genetics)

These findings do not necessarily have any implications for our DNA. To descend from someone does not mean you necessarily inherit any DNA from them. These findings do not conflict with the idea that most or all of your DNA is inherited from your local area. Even if you do descend from the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, that does not mean this can be detected in your DNA. In fact, there may be no evidence at all of these findings in humanity's DNA. And yet the findings can still be true.

To see this, imagine one Western European sailor blown off course in classical times, say 100 AD, and landing in the Caribbean, with no way home. He is not killed but rather taken in by a tribe who need strong young men.

  1. He mates with one of the native women and has children. 1/2 of their DNA is European.
  2. The children mate with pure natives and have grandchildren. About 1/4 (can be more or less, by chance) of their DNA is European.
  3. The grandchildren mate with pure natives and have great-grandchildren. About 1/8 (more or less) of their DNA is European.
  4. And so on.
By 1492, all of the Caribbean is descended from him, but his DNA is extinct. There is no evidence of his existence in the DNA of the living. He is everyone's ancestor, but no one has his DNA.

In summary, we are interested here in genealogical descent, not genetic descent.



Discussion

There are some interesting consequences of this world view.

Islam, Christianity and Judaism

  1. Quite likely every Muslim in the world today descends from the Prophet Muhammad, c. 600 AD.

    The Prophet is the proven ancestor of some Muslims alive today, hence probably ancestor of all of them.

  2. Quite likely everyone in the West descends from the Prophet Muhammad, c. 600 AD.

    There are also many known or suspected Muslim-Christian crossovers, in particular in medieval Spain. Even if specific ones, such as Zaida of Seville, are disproved, our model suggests that there will be others. The number of actual Muslim-Christian matings must be much higher than the few that we can suspect or prove. With the Muslim population of medieval Spain descended from the Prophet, it is almost impossible for the Christian population to stay separate. All we need is a tiny amount of interbreeding and fairly soon all the Christian population are descended from the Prophet too, and hence most or all of the West today. Religious barriers can't seriously push back the MRCA, only geographical barriers can.

    It is interesting to think that the World Trade Centre attack was almost certainly some descendants of the Prophet killing other descendants of the Prophet.

  3. Quite likely almost every Jew in the world today descends from the Prophet Muhammad, c. 600 AD.

    By the same logic, there were Jews in medieval Spain, and it's hard to see them staying separate from the gradual descent of all of Muslim and Christian Spain from the Prophet. Again, all we need is a tiny amount of interbreeding for this to happen. And later the Jews of Spain were expelled, and are probably hence the ancestors of much or most of the world's Jews today.

    It is interesting to think that every Palestinian suicide bombing attack on Israel is almost certainly some descendants of the Prophet killing other descendants of the Prophet.

  4. Of course ultimately the whole world will descend from the Prophet. In fact, this may already be true!


Alternative History

If you have a line of descendants that doesn't die out, eventually you are the ancestor of the whole future world. Through this, you affect all future world history. If the humblest Ancient Egyptian peasant had done anything different (even just had sex five minutes earlier), there would have been no Jesus, no St.Paul, Muhammad, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mao.

There would have been no Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Freudianism, communism, Nazism or Maoism. - These are belief systems, collections of beliefs accepted due to charismatic founders.

There would still have been Copernicanism, Newtonianism and Darwinism. - These are discoveries about the world, that would be made no matter what.

Science would still be here, but the religions and totalitarian systems would be different. There may have been no Holocaust. There may have been global nuclear war. Humanity might be extinct.



In the future, there will be a new MRCA

Finally, remember that all these CAs are moving targets. These CAs are defined relative to the world in the state it is in now, i.e. in 2000 AD. If we were living in 1000 AD, we would be talking about a completely different MRCA. Similarly, someone alive today (maybe you, maybe me) is an MRCA of the world at some future date.

"Mitochondrial Eve" is only defined relative to AD 2000. In 1000 AD there was a different Mitochondrial Eve, and in 1000 BC there was a different one still.



Links





Radio interview with me on "The Connection", NPR, 2002.
Length 48 minutes.




Stephen Fry explains my work on "QI", BBC, 2010.
See 6:12 to 9:27.





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