Home / Research / Projects / Modern human origins and evolution (Reyes-Centeno)


Modern human dispersals
Despite growing consensus on the importance of Africa as a source for the emergence of anatomically modern humans, their dispersal out of the continent remains controversial. Using data of extant human populations, as well as fossil specimens, Reyes-Centeno’s research seeks to test competing hypotheses for the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa and into Eurasia (e.g. Reyes-Centeno 2015, Reyes-Centeno 2016a). He continues an active collaboration with Silvia Ghirotto (University of Ferrara and DFG Center fellow) in utilizing genomic and cranial phenotype data to better understand how the fossil record can be reconciled with inferences on modern human history and demography drawn from genomic data.

Bio-cultural evolution and the New Synthesis
While the Modern Synthesis of the 20th century sought to integrate the knowledge of various natural history disciplines and to reconcile Mendelian and Darwinian theory, the New Synthesis of 21st century strives to incorporate knowledge and theory from the social sciences and humanities in order to understand the human past. With Katerina Harvati and Gerhard Jäger, Reyes-Centeno explores the association of linguistic and skeletal phenotypic variation of modern human populations (e.g. Reyes-Centeno, Harvati, and Jäger 2016). In collaboration with Silvia Ghirotto and Tsuneiko Hanihara (Kitasato University, Japan), they further explore these associations with genomic variation in order to understand the extent to which languages and genes co-evolve. Inspired by population geneticist Sewall Wright’s foreshadowing of the efforts of a New Synthesis*, Reyes-Centeno seeks to apply quantitative and population genetic methods for the study of biological and cultural change (e.g. Reyes-Centeno 2015).

*In his seminal 1950 essay during the Modern Synthesis “The genetical structure of populations,” Sewall Wright claimed that “…organic evolution is not the only sort of evolution in the sense of a process of cumulative change. When a level of intelligence was reached in an anthropoid line that made symbolic speech possible, a new evolutionary process emerged, enormously more rapid than organic evolution.”

Quantitative and population genetic applications to skeletal and fossil data
Paleoanthropologists rely largely on the primate fossil record and skeletal evidence of recent populations to make inferences on the evolutionary history of our species. A central challenge for paleoanthropology (and paleo-biology more generally) is making evolutionary inferences with limited fossil data, particularly when endogenous ancient DNA is unavailable. Reyes-Centeno’s research therefore applies a quantitative genetic approach to the study of skeletal and fossil data, embracing the concept of “paleo-demes” for the hominin fossil record (e.g. Reyes-Centeno 2015, Reyes-Centeno 2016b) and adapting methods developed from molecular biology to the study of skeletal variation (e.g. Reyes-Centeno et al. 2015, 2017).

Virtual anthropology and geometric morphometrics
Advances in medical imaging technology and in the quantitative analysis of forms have provided an important toolkit for paleoanthropologists. Reyes-Centeno applies a suite of virtual anthropology methods in his research and is interested in developing new methodological approaches that can aid in understanding human evolutionary history. He currently works on the reconstruction and analysis of the Kabua I and Eyasi I fossils from East Africa, in collaboration with Katerina Harvati, Abel Bosman, Chris Stringer of the National History Museum, London, and prospective DFG Center fellow Laura Buck of the University of Cambridge. He has analyzed the inner ear anatomy of those specimens (Reyes-Centeno et al. 2014), as well as of the Cioclovina specimen (Uhl et al. 2016).