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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Population expansion in the North African Late Pleistocene signalled by mitochondrial DNA haplogroup U6

Luísa Pereira12*, Nuno M Silva1, Ricardo Franco-Duarte1, Verónica Fernandes13, Joana B Pereira13, Marta D Costa13, Haidé Martins14, Pedro Soares13, Doron M Behar5, Martin B Richards3 and Vincent Macaulay6

Author Affiliations

1 IPATIMUP (Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto), Porto 4200-465, Portugal

2 Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade do Porto, Porto 4200-319, Portugal

3 Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology, Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

4 Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1UU, UK

5 Estonian Biocentre and Department of Evolutionary Biology, University of Tartu, Tartu 51010, Estonia

6 Department of Statistics, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:390  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-390

Published: 21 December 2010

Abstract

Background

The archaeology of North Africa remains enigmatic, with questions of population continuity versus discontinuity taking centre-stage. Debates have focused on population transitions between the bearers of the Middle Palaeolithic Aterian industry and the later Upper Palaeolithic populations of the Maghreb, as well as between the late Pleistocene and Holocene.

Results

Improved resolution of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplogroup U6 phylogeny, by the screening of 39 new complete sequences, has enabled us to infer a signal of moderate population expansion using Bayesian coalescent methods. To ascertain the time for this expansion, we applied both a mutation rate accounting for purifying selection and one with an internal calibration based on four approximate archaeological dates: the settlement of the Canary Islands, the settlement of Sardinia and its internal population re-expansion, and the split between haplogroups U5 and U6 around the time of the first modern human settlement of the Near East.

Conclusions

A Bayesian skyline plot placed the main expansion in the time frame of the Late Pleistocene, around 20 ka, and spatial smoothing techniques suggested that the most probable geographic region for this demographic event was to the west of North Africa. A comparison with U6's European sister clade, U5, revealed a stronger population expansion at around this time in Europe. Also in contrast with U5, a weak signal of a recent population expansion in the last 5,000 years was observed in North Africa, pointing to a moderate impact of the late Neolithic on the local population size of the southern Mediterranean coast.