Where do we come from? Paul Rodgers charts some of the latest work exploring the movement and develo

Where do we come from? It’s an abiding question, and one that has been only partially answered by science. While little doubt remains that our species evolved in East Africa, details of its spread around the world are still obscure. And the further back we peer, the harder it is to get a clear picture.

What evidence we have falls into three categories: physical remains, such as stone tools and cave paintings, can reveal the movement of technology and culture, but sometimes these spread not just as groups move, but between peoples. Linguistic studies, comparing modern languages to find their common roots, have the same problem. But genetics, looking at how minor mutations have spread through the world’s population, does not.

One of the more intriguing suggestions in the past decade is that the initial spread of humans from Africa extended along the southern coastline of Eurasia, to what is now Southeast Asia, then a subcontinent called Sundaland that was twice the size of modern India, stretching from Burma to Borneo. The flooding of this fertile paradise as the last Ice Age ended forced these people to adapt to new lifestyles, flee to new lands, or become extinct.

DNA research led by Leeds University’s Martin Richards, one of only two professors of archaeogenetics in the world, supports this idea, showing that the stone-age people on the southeastern shore of Sundaland expanded across the newly formed island chains 12,000 years ago.

The new theory, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, is likely to draw bitter criticism from supporters of the old consensus, based on linguistics, that the area is populated today by descendants of a rice-growing people called the Austronesians who expanded from Taiwan just 4,000 years ago. “Some quite forceful archaeologists have been extremely reluctant to accept this,” says Professor Richards. “And I haven’t met a single linguist willing to give up the out-of-Taiwan argument.”

The Austronesians supposedly supplanted the indigenous hunter-gatherers, who first arrived 50,000 years ago yet were considered so insignificant that they have not even been named.

“That was a great mistake,” Professor Richards says. His team is the first to use the full mitochondrial genome rather than fragments, giving it a much more detailed picture of population movements in the distant past. Their results show that the biggest migration went not from Taiwan, but to it, and occurred much earlier.

“The radical explanation is that the linguists are wrong and that these people spread out during the last episode of post-glacial expansion,” he said. The Austronesians may have been like the Normans, a small elite group that arrived later and took control of a larger, indigenous population, he

Sundaland was the biggest area to be drowned as the glaciers started to retreat 19,000 years ago, raising sea levels by more than 100 metres. The second largest, Doggerland, now the southern North Sea, was submerged towards the end of the Ice Age, separating the British Isles from continental Europe.

The people living in the southeast Asian subcontinent would have been particularly hard hit by three great sea level surges, 14,000, 11,500 and 7,600 years ago, believed to have been caused by catastrophic events as the ice sheets in North America and Antarctica retreated.

Professor Richards argues that many populations will have been wiped out as their land disappeared beneath the waves.

But one group could have been pre-adapted to the new environment, which had fewer inland plains and meandering riverbanks and twice as much coastline – the people of southeast Sundaland, who may have had a maritime culture linking them to the nearby Wallacean island group, named after the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, which includes New Guinea.

What is certain is that, as sea levels rose, these people began to spread throughout the region, according to mitochondrial mutations, which are passed down from mother to child. A parallel study of stone-age tools by other members of the team supports the theory, showing the spread of a stone tool technology called “flake and blade” throughout the region.

Professor Richards hopes to do further work on the Sundaland population, and is already working on a study of y chromosomes, which are only passed down through the male line. Marine archaeology could also shed more light on the drowned culture, though there are no immediate plans to begin looking beneath the shallow waters of the Sundaland Shelf.

In the original version of this article it was suggested the idea that Europeans are descended from a group of people who settled in what is now Southeast Asia, then a subcontinent called Sundaland, was mooted by Dr Stephen Oppenheimer in his 1998 book Eden in the East. We fully accept that this was not the case and apologise to Dr Oppenheimer for the error.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
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The case for action against Isil in Syria outweighs the case for inaction

The decision is finely balanced: but I'm voting for intervention, says Dan Jarvis. 

The choice before Parliament is not whether our country enters into a new conflict – it is whether we extend our existing commitment in a conflict that we are already engaged in and cannot hide away from. Those who wish us harm will remain bent on our destruction whatever we decide.

Just over a year ago the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to support airstrikes against Isil in Iraq. We did so because of the direct threat they posed to our safety and global security. The dangers have since multiplied as Isil have strengthened their foothold in Syria. We’ve seen British holidaymakers murdered on the beaches of Tunisia, bombings in Ankara, Beirut, on a Russian airliner, the horrors in Paris, and terror alerts across the world. Seven Isil-related plots have been foiled in the UK in the past year alone.

If I have learnt anything from my past experience it is that responding to these threats are always the most difficult judgements. There is never a perfect solution. It’s why I have reflected on this issue with care, conscious of what I heard at the National Security Council, and mindful of what is best for my constituents and our country.

That is why I made clear that I would only support extending military action against Isil if it was framed within a wider strategy. Having reflected upon the case for targeting their stronghold in Syria, I am persuaded that the case for action is stronger than the case for inaction.

I understand the voices cautioning against broadening our commitment. The test for them however must be to articulate an alternative strategy for Isil’s defeat. Realistically this cannot be done without targeting their command and control structures in Raqqa.

Answering the call of the United Nations and extending British airstrikes would bring unique capabilities to the struggle against Isil in Syria. The RAF are world leaders in precision targeting. As the French Socialist Defence Minister has said, "The use of these capabilities over Syria would put additional and extreme pressure on the ISIS terror network."

These tactics are working in Iraq. Airstrikes have weakened Isil and a third of their territory has been retaken with no civilian casualties.

Questions have rightly been asked of the Joint Intelligence Committee’s assessment that 75,000 moderate forces are available to help do the same in Syria. It reminds me of the dilemma I faced when commanding Afghan soldiers whose knowledge was invaluable but whose competencies were questionable in other areas. Sometimes you have to work with what you have, but the Prime Minister does need to provide greater clarity about how these troops would function as a coherent fighting force.

Everyone agrees that military action must be accompanied by a diplomatic effort to broker an end to the Syrian civil war. This will take time but a political process is now in place. The Vienna conference agreed a timetable for a political transition within 6 to 18 months. In an ideal world we would wait for this process to conclude, but I don’t believe the nature of the threat we face affords us that luxury.

No-one has argued that the political process would be derailed if Britain joined our allies in acting against Isil in Syria as well as Iraq. I am therefore satisfied that military action could effectively run in parallel to our diplomatic efforts. The government now needs to throw the UK’s full weight behind the negotiations and work with our partners to deliver a lasting peace settlement.

Constructive steps have been set out to address the wider tasks of undercutting Isil’s financial muscle, post-conflict reconstruction and tackling extremism here at home. Now Ministers must deliver on them.

There have been promises to enforce trade sanctions and crack down on the people smugglers that fund Isil’s bloodshed. It is vital that more pressure is put on Gulf States funneling money and arms to jihadist groups. But given much of Isil’s wealth comes from the territory they control, that is what most needs to be undermined.

On reconstruction, the government’s pledge to contribute a further £1bn in humanitarian relief is a significant guarantee. The upcoming Syrian donors conference in London will be crucial in holding the international community to their responsibilities to Syria.

The cancellation of police cuts is also important in our counter-terrorism effort. Further measures will be needed if we are to defeat Isil ideologically and drive radical voices out of our communities. With our security services monitoring hundreds of UK nationals who have returned from Syria however, we need to act to tackle the problem at source.

Overall, the government must strenuously pursue the priorities set out in its motion before Parliament. Isil will only be defeated if Ministers demonstrate the same focus on the wider diplomatic and humanitarian strategy that they have shown in advocating military action. The British public will expect nothing less and it is our job as a responsible Opposition to hold them to that.

Labour has a tradition of standing for the national interest when our country is under threat. When the War Cabinet met in 1939, it was Ministers from our party – Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood – that tipped the balance in favour of resisting Nazism. Isil are the fascists of our time. Our struggle against them will be more complex, but the basic judgment it demands of us is the same – the readiness to do what is necessary to keep the British people safe.

I take this decision having voted against airstrikes in Syria without a UN resolution two years ago, mindful of the risks and respectful of those who hold a different view. The mistakes made in Iraq from 2003 cast a long shadow, but we should not be paralysed by the past now that we have UN backing and the conditions of our party conference motion have been met.

When I look to my own conscience, I have to consider how I would feel if the worst happened on our streets and a terrorist atrocity succeeded after backing away from confronting the evil behind it. That is why I will be voting for action on Wednesday. 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.