Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) has been a potent tool in studies of the evolution of modern humans, human migrations and the dynamics of human populations over time. The popularity of this cytoplasmic genome has largely been due to its clonal inheritance (in Man) allowing the tracing of a direct genetic line. In addition, a comparatively high rate of nucleotide substitution facilitates phylogenetic resolution among relatively closely related individuals of the same species.
In this thesis, a statistically supported phylogeny based on complete mitochondrial genome sequences is presented which, for the first time, unambiguously places the root of modern human mitochondrial lineages in Africa in the last 200 thousand years. This conclusion provides strong support for the “recent African origin” hypothesis. Also, the complete genome data underline the problematic nature of traditional approaches to analyses of mitochondrial phylogenies.
The dispersal of anatomically modern humans from the African continent is examined through single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and sequence data. These data imply an expansion from Africa about 57 thousand years ago and a subsequent population dispersal into Asia. The dispersal coincides with a major population division that may be the result of multiple migratory routes to East Asia.
Also investigated is the question of a common origin for the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Guinea. Previous studies have been equivocal on this question with some presenting evidence for a common genetic origin and other proposing separate histories. Our data reveals an ancient genetic link between Australian Aborigines and the peoples of the New Guinea highlands.