Southern Dispersal Route - Early Modern Humans Leave Africa

The Human Colonization of South Asia

Map of Archaeological Sites which Have Evidence of Southern Dispersal Route
Map of Archaeological Sites which Have Evidence of Southern Dispersal Route. K. Kris Hirst

The Southern Dispersal Route refers to a theory that an early migration of modern human beings left Africa as least as long ago as 70,000 years and followed the coastlines of Africa, Arabia and India, arriving in Australia and Melanesia at least as early as 45,000 years ago. It is one of what appears to now have been multiple migration paths that our ancestors took out of Africa.

Coastal Routes

Most versions of the southern dispersal hypothesis suggests that modern H. sapiens with a generalized subsistence strategy based on hunting and gathering coastal resources (shellfish, fish, sea lions and rodents, as well as bovids and antelope), left Africa between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago [MIS 5], and traveled along the coasts of Arabia, India, and Indochina, arriving in Australia by 40-50,000 years ago.

By the way, the notion that humans frequently used coastal areas as pathways of migration was developed by Carl Sauer in the 1960s. Coastal movement is part of other migration theories including the original out of Africa and the Pacific coastal migration colonizing the Americas ca 15,000 years ago.

Southern Dispersal Route: Evidence

Archaeological and fossil evidence supporting the Southern Dispersal Route includes similarities in stone tools and symbolic behaviors at several archaeological sites throughout the world.

Chronology of the Southern Dispersal

The site of Jwalapuram in India is key to dating the southern dispersal hypothesis.

This site has stone tools which are similar to Middle Stone Age African assemblages, and they occur both before and after the eruption of the Toba volcano in Sumatra, which has recently been securely dated to 74,000 years ago. The power of the massive volcanic eruption was largely considered to have created a wide swath of ecological disaster, but because of the findings at Jwalapuram, that has recently come into debate.

Further, the presence of other humans sharing planet earth at the same time as the migrations out of Africa (Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denisovans, Flores, Homo heidelbergensis), and the amount of interaction Homo sapiens had with them during their sojourns is still widely debated.

More Evidence

Other parts of the southern dispersal route theory not described here are genetic studies examining relict DNA in modern and ancient humans (Fernandes et al, Ghirotto et al, Mellars et al); comparisons of artifact types and styles for the various sites (Armitage et al, Boivin et al, Petraglia et al); presence of symbolic behaviors seen at those sites (Balme et al) and studies of the environments of the coastal routes at the time of the expansion outward (Field et al, Dennell and Petraglia). See the bibliography for those discussions.


This article is a part of the guide to Human Migrations Out of Africa, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Armitage SJ, Jasim SA, Marks AE, Parker AG, Usik VI, and Uerpmann H-P. 2011. The Southern Route "Out of Africa": Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia. Science 331(6016):453-456. doi: 10.1126/science.1199113

Balme J, Davidson I, McDonald J, Stern N, and Veth P.

2009. Symbolic behaviour and the peopling of the southern arc route to Australia. Quaternary International 202(1-2):59-68. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2008.10.002

Boivin N, Fuller DQ, Dennell R, Allaby R, and Petraglia MD. 2013. Human dispersal across diverse environments of Asia during the Upper Pleistocene. Quaternary International 300:32-47. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2013.01.008

Bretzke K, Armitage SJ, Parker AG, Walkington H, and Uerpmann H-P. 2013. The environmental context of Paleolithic settlement at Jebel Faya, Emirate Sharjah, UAE. Quaternary International 300:83-93. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2013.01.028

Dennell R, and Petraglia MD. 2012. The dispersal of Homo sapiens across southern Asia: how early, how often, how complex? Quaternary Science Reviews 47:15-22. doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2012.05.002

Fernandes V, Alshamali F, Alves M, Costa Marta D, Pereira Joana B, Silva Nuno M, Cherni L, Harich N, Cerny V, Soares P et al.

2012. The Arabian cradle: mitochondrial relicts of the first steps along the southern route out of Africa. The American Journal of Human Genetics 90(2):347-355. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.12.010

Field JS, Petraglia MD, and Lahr MM. 2007. The southern dispersal hypothesis and the South Asian archaeological record: Examination of dispersal routes through GIS analysis.

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 26(1):88-108. doi: 10.1016/j.jaa.2006.06.001

Ghirotto S, Penso-Dolfin L, and Barbujani G. 2011. Genomic evidence for an African expansion of anatomically modern humans by a southern route. Human Biology 83(4):477-489. doi: 10.1353/hub.2011.0034

Mellars P, Gori KC, Carr M, Soares PA, and Richards MB. 2013. Genetic and archaeological perspectives on the initial modern human colonization of southern Asia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(26):10699-10704. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1306043110

Oppenheimer S. 2009. The great arc of dispersal of modern humans: Africa to Australia. Quaternary International 202(1-2):2-13. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2008.05.015

Oppenheimer S. 2012. A single southern exit of modern humans from Africa: Before or after Toba? Quaternary International 258:88-99. doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2011.07.049

Petraglia M, Korisettar R, Boivin N, Clarkson C, Ditchfield P, Jones S, Koshy J, Lahr MM, Oppenheimer C, Pyle D et al. 2007. Middle Paleolithic Assemblages from the Indian Subcontinent Before and After the Toba Super-Eruption. Science 317(5834):114-116. doi: 10.1126/science.1141564

Rosenberg TM, Preusser F, Fleitmann D, Schwalb A, Penkman K, Schmid TW, Al-Shanti MA, Kadi K, and Matter A.

2011. Humid periods in southern Arabia: Windows of opportunity for modern human dispersal. Geology 39(12):1115-1118. doi: 10.1130/g32281.1