Bayesian inference of ancient human demography from individual genome sequences

Journal name:
Nature Genetics
Year published:
Published online

Whole-genome sequences provide a rich source of information about human evolution. Here we describe an effort to estimate key evolutionary parameters based on the whole-genome sequences of six individuals from diverse human populations. We used a Bayesian, coalescent-based approach to obtain information about ancestral population sizes, divergence times and migration rates from inferred genealogies at many neutrally evolving loci across the genome. We introduce new methods for accommodating gene flow between populations and integrating over possible phasings of diploid genotypes. We also describe a custom pipeline for genotype inference to mitigate biases from heterogeneous sequencing technologies and coverage levels. Our analysis indicates that the San population of southern Africa diverged from other human populations approximately 108–157 thousand years ago, that Eurasians diverged from an ancestral African population 38–64 thousand years ago, and that the effective population size of the ancestors of all modern humans was ~9,000.

At a glance


  1. Population phylogeny and genealogies.
    Figure 1: Population phylogeny and genealogies.

    The population phylogeny assumed in this study with one diploid genome per population (Table 1) and a haploid chimpanzee outgroup. We included the Yoruban and Bantu individuals in the analysis as alternative African ingroups (denoted X) because their relationship to one another was uncertain (Supplementary Note). The free parameters in our model include the five population divergence times (τ) and the ten effective population sizes (θ), all expressed in units of expected mutations per site. We also considered various 'migration bands' (gray double-headed arrow) to allow for gene flow between populations, treating the (constant) migration rates along bands as free parameters. The two parameters of primary interest were the San (τKHEXS) and African-Eurasian (τKHEX) divergence times (div.). We obtained absolute divergence times (in years) and effective population sizes (in numbers of individuals) by assuming a human-chimpanzee average genomic divergence time of 5.6–7.6 Mya and a point estimate of 6.5 Mya.

  2. Results of the simulation study.
    Figure 2: Results of the simulation study.

    Simulations assumed a population tree like the one shown in Figure 1 and plausible divergence times, population sizes and migration scenarios (Supplementary Note). (a) Accuracy of estimated African-Eurasian (τKHEX) and San (τKHEXS) divergence times without migration. Dotted lines indicate the values assumed for the simulations, and each boxplot summarizes the posterior mean estimates in six separate runs of G-PhoCS. Results are shown for correctly phased data (gold) and integration over unknown phasings (red). A random phasing procedure produced substantially poorer results (Supplementary Fig. 10). Most estimates fall within 10% of the true value, except for the smallest assumed divergence times, where weak information in the data leads to an upward bias. (b) Accuracy of the estimated San divergence time (τKHEXS) and the Yoruban-Bantu population size (θX) in simulations with four levels of constant-rate migration (denoted 0, 1, 2 and 3 in order of increasing strength) from population S to population X. Ratios of the estimated to true values are shown when migration is not allowed (blue) and is allowed (red) in the model. Each boxplot summarizes 12 runs. Notice that there is a pronounced bias when migration is present but is not modeled, but this bias is eliminated when migration is added to the model. Simulated and estimated migration rates (measured in expected number of migrants per generation) are shown at right (see Supplementary Figs. 9–11 for the complete results).

  3. Parameter estimates from real data.
    Figure 3: Parameter estimates from real data.

    Estimates of population divergence times (a), migration rates (b) and effective population sizes (c) obtained for various scenarios. In a and c, both mutation-scaled (left) and calibrated (right) y axes are shown (with a calibration of Tdiv = 6.5 Mya). Results are shown for scenarios with either the Yoruban or Bantu ingroup X and with or without a migration band between X and the San ingroup. Panel b shows estimated migration rates for 14 different migration bands. Only the Yoruban-San (Y-S) and Bantu-San (B-S) migration scenarios are strongly supported. In all panels, each bar represents the mean estimate and 95% credible interval (error bars) of a single representative run of the program (see Supplementary Tables 4 and 5 and Supplementary Figs. 12 and 13 for complete results).


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Author information


  1. Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    • Ilan Gronau,
    • Melissa J Hubisz,
    • Charles G Danko &
    • Adam Siepel
  2. Graduate Field of Computer Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    • Brad Gulko


A.S. conceived of and designed the study. I.G. implemented G-PhoCS and applied it to both simulated and real data. B.G. implemented BSNP and applied it to the individual genomes. I.G., M.J.H., B.G., C.G.D. and A.S. performed additional statistical analyses. I.G. and A.S. wrote the paper with review and contributions by all authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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  1. Supplementary Text and Figures (4M)

    Supplementary Figures 1–13, Supplementary Tables 1–7 and Supplementary Note.

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