Determining historical sex ratios throughout human evolution can provide insight into patterns of genomic variation, the structure and composition of ancient populations, and the cultural factors that influence the sex ratio (e.g., sex-specific migration rates). Although numerous studies have suggested that unequal sex ratios have existed in human evolutionary history, a coherent picture of sex-biased processes has yet to emerge. For example, two recent studies compared human X chromosome to autosomal variation to make inferences about historical sex ratios but reached seemingly contradictory conclusions, with one study finding evidence for a male bias and the other study identifying a female bias. Here, we show that a large part of this discrepancy can be explained by methodological differences. Specifically, through reanalysis of empirical data, derivation of explicit analytical formulae, and extensive simulations we demonstrate that two estimators of the effective sex ratio based on population structure and nucleotide diversity preferentially detect biases that have occurred on different timescales. Our results clarify apparently contradictory evidence on the role of sex-biased processes in human evolutionary history and show that extant patterns of human genomic variation are consistent with both a recent male bias and an earlier, persistent female bias.
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