Open Access Research article

The influence of habitats on female mobility in Central and Western Africa inferred from human mitochondrial variation

Valeria Montano17*, Veronica Marcari1, Mariano Pavanello235, Okorie Anyaele4, David Comas5, Giovanni Destro-Bisol135 and Chiara Batini6*

Author Affiliations

1 Dipartimento di Biologia Ambientale, Sapienza Università di Roma, P.le Aldo Moro 5, 00185, Rome, Italy

2 Dipartimento di Storia, Culture, Religioni, Sapienza Università di Roma, P.le Aldo Moro 5, 00185, Rome, Italy

3 Istituto Italiano di Antropologia, P.le Aldo Moro 5, 00185, Rome, Italy

4 Department of Zoology, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria

5 Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (CSIC-UPF), Departament de Ciències Experimentals i de la Salut, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Doctor Aiguader 88, 08003, Barcelona, Spain

6 Department of Genetics, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK

7 Current address: Department for Integrative Biology and Evolution, University of Veterinary Medicine, Savoyenstr. 1a, A-1160, Wien, Austria

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-24

Published: 29 January 2013



When studying the genetic structure of human populations, the role of cultural factors may be difficult to ascertain due to a lack of formal models. Linguistic diversity is a typical example of such a situation. Patrilocality, on the other hand, can be integrated into a biological framework, allowing the formulation of explicit working hypotheses. The present study is based on the assumption that patrilocal traditions make the hypervariable region I of the mtDNA a valuable tool for the exploration of migratory dynamics, offering the opportunity to explore the relationships between genetic and linguistic diversity. We studied 85 Niger-Congo-speaking patrilocal populations that cover regions from Senegal to Central African Republic. A total of 4175 individuals were included in the study.


By combining a multivariate analysis aimed at investigating the population genetic structure, with a Bayesian approach used to test models and extent of migration, we were able to detect a stepping-stone migration model as the best descriptor of gene flow across the region, with the main discontinuities corresponding to forested areas.


Our analyses highlight an aspect of the influence of habitat variation on human genetic diversity that has yet to be understood. Rather than depending simply on geographic linear distances, patterns of female genetic variation vary substantially between savannah and rainforest environments. Our findings may be explained by the effects of recent gene flow constrained by environmental factors, which superimposes on a background shaped by pre-agricultural peopling.

Mitochondrial DNA; Migration; Population genetic structure; Bayesian inference; Western Central Africa