A Brief History of Migration

Updated on November 13, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Our ancient ancestors emerged from hominids in the Horn of Africa between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. It wasn’t until relatively recently, in geological terms, that they slowly migrated to populate the rest of the planet. Everybody on Earth shares some of the genetic material from that African base.

Figures are in thousands of years ago.
Figures are in thousands of years ago. | Source

The First Migrants

A very clever animation created by Professor Stephen Oppenheimer for the Bradshaw Foundation takes us back 160,000 years to show how all of us are descended from a small group of Africans who began the journey of our ancestors.

By studying DNA and archaeology, Prof. Oppenheimer has traced the movement of humans across the face of the earth.

Other human-like species – Australopithecus afarense, Neanderthals, etc - had existed in earlier times but, for one reason or another, they died out.

The species to which we all belong – Homo sapiens – sprang from a tiny group of about 10,000 who were all that was left after a massive ice age. Descendants from this small cluster migrated south and west within Africa, while others headed north and made it as far as modern-day Israel, Syria, and Lebanon before another big freeze wiped them out.

As the ice receded 70,000 to 80,000 years ago another, and so far permanent, migration out of Africa took place. First, they moved across the Arabian Peninsula, through the Indian subcontinent, and on to Burma and Indonesia. Then, the migration turned north and headed through Borneo to China.

Early homo sapiens as envisaged by London’s Natural History Museum.
Early homo sapiens as envisaged by London’s Natural History Museum. | Source

Close Brush with Extinction

A massive disaster struck 74,000 years ago. A volcano called Mount Toba on the island of Sumatra exploded and the dust from this catastrophe blocked out the Sun’s heat and triggered an ice age that lasted 1,000 years. There was a substantial extinction of life and the almost complete annihilation of the human species.

This calamity caused the human population to collapse to where there may only have been 2,000 individuals left. This shows up in the fact that there is so little genetic diversity among humans when compared with other species.

BBC science editor Dr. David Whitehouse has written that “It was out of this small population, with its consequent limited genetic diversity, that today’s humans descended.”

Some scientists question the Mount Toba extinction theory, saying the lack of genetic diversity is because so few people migrated out of Africa.


Early Global Warming

As the world’s climate began a dramatic warming period, our ancestors began to move north over the Middle East and they crossed into Europe about 50,000 years ago. Keeping mostly to the southern part of the continent and away from the cold they spread to Spain by about 40,000 years ago. At about this time, others migrated from Asia towards the north into what is today Russia, and then to Japan.

Central Asians moved farther north and east, and the first humans entered the Americas over the land bridge that existed across the Bering Sea about 25,000 years ago. Another ice age locked northern survivors in refuges and halted further migration except for people who travelled into South America. They reached Brazil about 18,000 years ago.

Crossing the Bering land bridge.
Crossing the Bering land bridge. | Source

Slowly, the ice began to retreat again and migrants started to populate northern Europe and the whole of North and South America. By 8,000 years ago agriculture had developed and the patterns of settlement that are familiar today became established.

Mechanization Brings Dramatic Change

For 5,000 years humans lived mostly rural lives, raising crops and tending herds. They lived in villages and generations of families never moved more than a few kilometres away.

The Industrial Revolution changed that completely. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the harnessing of steam power made large-scale production of goods possible. Small, crafter’s workshops gave way to large factories and there was a massive movement of people from villages to cities to run the machines. But most of those who migrated didn’t have stories with happy endings. They simply exchanged lives of rural poverty for lives of urban poverty.


When Europe’s population growth began to test the resources of countries, a simple solution was available – export the problem. So countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia absorbed Europe’s surplus population.

A History of Migration published by the University of Leiden in the Netherlands notes that, “In one century (1820-1924), seven million people went to Canada. Six million of them moved on to the United States later.”

The University adds that, “From 1820 on, the immigration [to the United States] became massive. Between 1820 and 1860 five million immigrants came to the USA, a large part of them were Irish Catholics. From 1860 until 1890 13.5 million immigrants went to the USA, a large part of them were Southern Europeans, Germans, Slavs, and Jews. At the beginning of the 20th century (1900-1924) 18 million immigrants came from the same areas.”

Medical check at Ellis Island.
Medical check at Ellis Island. | Source

Little in the way of selection took place. If the prospective migrant had a strong back and a pulse they were welcome. The Great Depression of the 1930s followed by World War II put a stop to most migration.

After the guns finally fell silent in 1945, countries accepting immigrants became choosier. Immigrants to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other receiving states wanted people with more to contribute than sweat, although being willing to sweat was still a valued asset.

Migration Numbers Keep Rising

In 2000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) published its first World Migration Report; in it the group said that globally there were 150 million migrants. The 2019 report says the number of migrants has grown to 271.6 million, and the figure could rise to 405 million by 2050.

The main causes of this migration are global heating, conflict, persecution, technological change, and a search for work.

Within the overall trend of rising numbers there are other shifts taking place. The IOM report says an increasing proportion of migrants are female as heads of households.

Permanent migration such as that during the last century is declining; it is being replaced by temporary working visas. There are also increasing numbers of what are called circular migrants. These are people who maintain homes in two locations and move between them.

Canadians, of course, have wide experience of this in the so-called Snowbird movement. These are people, usually retired, who avoid the worst of the Canadian winter by moving temporarily to warmer spots such as Florida and Arizona during the cold months.

Other circular migrants hold dual citizenship. The Economist has reported that “Australia reckons 30,000 people hold both Australian and Hong Kong passports. Canada estimates that 220,000 Canadians live in Hong Kong.”

They enjoy the benefits of democracy, government-funded health care when needed, and lower university tuitions, but only visit Australia/Canada occasionally.

Now, there are large movements of people escaping conflict, persecution, and poverty. Most of them are heading for Europe and North America. Managing this flow of humanity is a huge challenge today that’s going to become more complex and bigger in the future.

Migrants by the 100s of thousands cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in unseaworthy boats each year. More than 3,000 die in the attempt annually.
Migrants by the 100s of thousands cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in unseaworthy boats each year. More than 3,000 die in the attempt annually. | Source

Bonus Factoids

  • It was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who gave the Latin name “Homo Sapiens” to our species in 1758. It translates to mean “wise man.”
  • Migration out of Africa started about 2,000 generations ago.
  • Yerima is an African migrant to Europe, he is quoted by the United Nations as saying, “If you have a family, you have to ensure they have food, shelter, medicine, and education. I have a young daughter. People may ask what kind of father I am, to leave behind my wife and infant daughter. But what kind of a father would I be, if I stayed and couldn’t provide them a decent life?”


  • “Homo Sapiens and Early Human Migration.” Khan Academy, undated.
  • “When Humans Faced Extinction.” Dr. David Whitehouse, BBC, June 9, 2003.
  • International Organization for Migration
  • “Hong Kong Citizenship: Thou Shalt Have no Other.” The Economist, June 5, 2008.
  • “The Great Human Migration.” Guy Gugliotta, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2008.

The idea to try and reduce the weight of migration is to look at the causes. It is … the governing policies that entrench people in poverty, that don’t develop anything. Schools that don’t exist, failing health and corruption, repression. That pushes people to emigrate.

Serge, African migrant to Europe.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


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    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      3 months ago from Ohio

      This is a very interesting article. I didn't realize that humanity was nearly extinguished.


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