Phylogeography of the human mitochondrial L1c haplogroup: Genetic signatures of the prehistory of Central Africa
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Interindividual variation of human mitochondrial DNA has been extensively studied over the last two decades, and its usefulness for reconstructing evolutionary relationships of extant populations has been proved. However, some mitochondrial lineages still need to be studied using a combination of larger and tailored datasets and increased level of resolution in order to shed light on their origin and on the processes underlying their present distribution. In this study, we analyze the phylogeny of the L1c haplogroup of human mitochondrial DNA using sequence data from hypervariable regions 1 and 2 obtained from 455 individuals (extracted from a total sampling of 2542 individuals) belonging to sub-Saharan African and African-American populations. We propose a substantial revision of L1c phylogeny, by introducing one new sub-haplogroup (L1c4), two new L1c1 clades (L1c1b and L1c1c), and by reassigning the previous L1c1a1 sequences to a clade which we termed L1c5. The new phylogeny encompasses distinct lineages with different evolutionary histories. In fact, based on population frequency, internal variation and mismatch distribution, we propose that L1c1b, L1c1c and L1c2 originated in Bantu ancestors, whereas L1c1a, L1c4 and L1c5 evolved among Western Pygmies. The population structure of L1c is not comparable to any known mitochondrial or, even, Y-chromosomal haplogroup, and challenges the current view that most of mtDNA variation in Pygmies might reflect admixture with Bantu or a persistence of plesiomorphic characters. In fact, the unique feature of the L1c is that it retains a signature of a phase common to the ancestors of the Bantu and Western Pygmies, while encompassing some specific sub-clades which can indicate their divergence. This allowed us to attempt a phylogenetically based assessment of the evolutionary relationships between the two groups. Taking into consideration estimates of the time to the most recent common ancestor of L1c and its clades together with archaeological and paleoclimatological evidence, we propose that the ancestors of Bantu and Western Pygmies separated between 60 and 30 kya.