WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Human evolution has been moving at breakneck speed in the past several thousand years, far from plodding along as some scientists had thought, researchers said on Monday.
In fact, people today are genetically more different from people living 5,000 years ago than those humans were different from the Neanderthals who vanished 30,000 years ago, according to anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin.
The genetic changes have related to numerous different human characteristics, the researchers said.
Many of the recent genetic changes reflect differences in the human diet brought on by agriculture, as well as resistance to epidemic diseases that became mass killers following the growth of human civilizations, the researchers said.
For example, Africans have new genes providing resistance to malaria. In Europeans, there is a gene that makes them better able to digest milk as adults. In Asians, there is a gene that makes ear wax more dry.
The changes have been driven by the colossal growth in the human population — from a few million to 6.5 billion in the past 10,000 years — with people moving into new environments to which they needed to adapt, added Henry Harpending, a University of Utah anthropologist.
“The central finding is that human evolution is happening very fast — faster than any of us thought,” Harpending said in a telephone interview.
“Most of the acceleration is in the last 10,000 years, basically corresponding to population growth after agriculture is invented,” Hawks said in a telephone interview.
The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers looked for the appearance of favorable gene mutations over the past 80,000 years of human history by analyzing voluminous DNA information on 270 people from different populations worldwide.
Data from this International HapMap Project, short for haplotype mapping, offered essentially a catalogue of genetic differences and similarities in people alive today.
Looking at such data, scientists can ascertain how recently a given genetic change appeared in the genome and then can plot the pace of such change into the distant past.
Beneficial genetic changes have appeared at a rate roughly 100 times higher in the past 5,000 years than at any previous period of human evolution, the researchers determined. They added that about 7 percent of human genes are undergoing rapid, relatively recent evolution.
Even with these changes, however, human DNA remains more than 99 percent identical, the researchers noted.
Harpending said the genetic evidence shows that people worldwide have been getting less similar rather than more similar due to the relatively recent genetic changes.
Genes have evolved relatively quickly in Africa, Asia and Europe but almost all of the changes have been unique to their corner of the world. This is the case, he said, because since humans dispersed from Africa to other parts of the world about 40,000 years ago, there has not been much flow of genes between the regions.
Editing by Sandra Maler