Human evolutionary genetics studies how one human genome differs from another human genome, the evolutionary past that gave rise to it, and its current effects. Differences between genomes have anthropological, medical and forensic implications and applications. Genetic data can provide important insight into human evolution.

Origin of apes

The taxonomic relationships of hominoids.

Biologists classify humans, along with only a few other species, as great apes (species in the family Hominidae). The Hominidae include two distinct species of chimpanzee (the bonobo, Pan paniscus, and the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes), two species of gorilla (the western gorilla, Gorilla gorilla, and the eastern gorilla, Gorilla graueri), and two species of orangutan (the Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, and the Sumatran orangutan, Pongo abelii).

Apes, in turn, belong to the primates order (>400 species). Data from both mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA (nDNA) indicate that primates belong to the group of Euarchontoglires, together with Rodentia, Lagomorpha, Dermoptera, and Scandentia.[1] This is further supported by Alu-like short interspersed nuclear elements (SINEs) which have been found only in members of the Euarchontoglires.[2]


A phylogenetic tree is usually derived from DNA or protein sequences from populations. Often, mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosome sequences are used to study ancient human demographics. These single-locus sources of DNA do not recombine and are almost always inherited from a single parent, with only one known exception in mtDNA.[3] Individuals from closer geographic regions generally tend to be more similar than individuals from regions farther away. Distance on a phylogenetic tree can be used approximately to indicate:

  1. Genetic distance. The genetic difference between humans and chimps is less than 2%,[4] or twenty times larger than the variation among modern humans.
  2. Temporal remoteness of the most recent common ancestor. The mitochondrial most recent common ancestor of modern humans lived roughly 200,000 years ago[citation needed], latest common ancestors of humans and chimps between four and seven million years ago.

Speciation of humans and the African apes

The separation of humans from their closest relatives, the African apes (chimpanzees and gorillas), has been studied extensively for more than a century. Five major questions have been addressed:

General observations

As discussed before, different parts of the genome show different sequence divergence between different hominoids. It has also been shown that the sequence divergence between DNA from humans and chimpanzees varies greatly. For example, the sequence divergence varies between 0% to 2.66% between non-coding, non-repetitive genomic regions of humans and chimpanzees.[5] Additionally gene trees, generated by comparative analysis of DNA segments, do not always fit the species tree. Summing up:

Divergence times

The divergence time of humans from other apes is of great interest. One of the first molecular studies, published in 1967 measured immunological distances (IDs) between different primates.[7] Basically the study measured the strength of immunological response that an antigen from one species (human albumin) induces in the immune system of another species (human, chimpanzee, gorilla and Old World monkeys). Closely related species should have similar antigens and therefore weaker immunological response to each other's antigens. The immunological response of a species to its own antigens (e.g. human to human) was set to be 1.

The ID between humans and gorillas was determined to be 1.09, that between humans and chimpanzees was determined as 1.14. However the distance to six different Old World monkeys was on average 2.46, indicating that the African apes are more closely related to humans than to monkeys. The authors consider the divergence time between Old World monkeys and hominoids to be 30 million years ago (MYA), based on fossil data, and the immunological distance was considered to grow at a constant rate. They concluded that divergence time of humans and the African apes to be roughly ~5 MYA. That was a surprising result. Most scientists at that time thought that humans and great apes diverged much earlier (>15 MYA).

The gorilla was, in ID terms, closer to human than to chimpanzees; however, the difference was so slight that the trichotomy could not be resolved with certainty. Later studies based on molecular genetics were able to resolve the trichotomy: chimpanzees are phylogenetically closer to humans than to gorillas. However, some divergence times estimated later (using much more sophisticated methods in molecular genetics) do not substantially differ from the very first estimate in 1967, but a recent paper[8] puts it at 11-14 MYA.

Divergence times and ancestral effective population size

The sequences of the DNA segments diverge earlier than the species. A large effective population size in the ancestral population (left) preserves different variants of the DNA segments (=alleles) for a longer period of time. Therefore, on average, the gene divergence times (tA for DNA segment A; tB for DNA segment B) will deviate more from the time the species diverge (tS) compared to a small ancestral effective population size (right).

Current methods to determine divergence times use DNA sequence alignments and molecular clocks. Usually the molecular clock is calibrated assuming that the orangutan split from the African apes (including humans) 12-16 MYA. Some studies also include some old world monkeys and set the divergence time of them from hominoids to 25-30 MYA. Both calibration points are based on very little fossil data and have been criticized.[9]

If these dates are revised, the divergence times estimated from molecular data will change as well. However, the relative divergence times are unlikely to change. Even if we can't tell absolute divergence times exactly, we can be pretty sure that the divergence time between chimpanzees and humans is about sixfold shorter than between chimpanzees (or humans) and monkeys.

One study (Takahata et al., 1995) used 15 DNA sequences from different regions of the genome from human and chimpanzee and 7 DNA sequences from human, chimpanzee and gorilla.[10] They determined that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than gorillas. Using various statistical methods, they estimated the divergence time human-chimp to be 4.7 MYA and the divergence time between gorillas and humans (and chimps) to be 7.2 MYA.

Additionally they estimated the effective population size of the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees to be ~100,000. This was somewhat surprising since the present day effective population size of humans is estimated to be only ~10,000. If true that means that the human lineage would have experienced an immense decrease of its effective population size (and thus genetic diversity) in its evolution. (see Toba catastrophe theory)

A and B are two different loci. In the upper figure they fit to the species tree. The DNA that is present in today's gorillas diverged earlier from the DNA that is present in today's humans and chimps. Thus both loci should be more similar between human and chimp than between gorilla and chimp or gorilla and human. In the lower graph, locus A has a more recent common ancestor in human and gorilla compared to the chimp sequence. Whereas chimp and gorilla have a more recent common ancestor for locus B. Here the gene trees are incongruent to the species tree.