Recent research into human origins has largely focused on deducing past events and processes from current patterns of genetic variation. Some human genes possess unexpectedly low diversity, seemingly resulting from events of the late Pleistocene. Such anomalies have previously been ascribed to population bottlenecks or selection on genes. For four species of matrilineal whale, evidence suggests that cultural evolution may have reduced the diversity of genes which have similar transmission characteristics to selective cultural traits, through a process called cultural hitchhiking. Cultural evolution is characteristic of human societies and so should be considered as a potential determinant of human genetic diversity. A stochastic simulation of gene and cultural dynamics in an array of hunter-gatherer tribes shows that cultural selection has the potential to severely reduce genetic diversity if: inter-tribe gene flows are reasonably low (<~0.6-15 genes/tribe/generation); cultural evolution changes fitness by >~0.3-3%/generation; and fitness is changed more by cultural innovation within a tribe than cultural assimilation from neighboring tribes. Thus cultural hitchhiking may explain low diversity and short coalescence times in mitochondrial and, especially, Y-linked human genes.
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