Human DNA From Ancient Skeletons Helps Fill Gaps In Africa’s Prehistoric Past

Researchers in Malawi examining bone fragments. Jessica C. Thompson/Emory University

The Malawi DNA also revealed that a population that once lived from the southernmost tip of Africa to the equator shared ancestry with the modern-day Khoe-San people, and even left some traces in those from islands off the coast of Tanzania.

"The Khoe-San are such a genetically distinctive people, it was a surprise to find a closely related ancestor so far north just a couple of thousand years ago," Reich added.

The Hadza

Hadzabe bushmen sitting in front of a hut. erichon/Shutterstock

The Hadza are a unique group of people in Tanzania that forage and hunt for food and speak an incredibly distinct language composed of clicks. For these reasons and more, researchers believe they have lived there for thousands of years with little change to their way of life until the past century or so. 

"They have a distinct appearance, language and genetics, and some people speculated that, like the Khoe-San, they might represent a very early diverging group from other African populations," said Reich. "Our study shows that instead, they’re somehow in the middle of everything."

Not only that, but according to genomic analyses, the Hadza are more closely related to non-Africans than other Africans. This incredible finding suggests that they are direct descendants of the humans that migrated out of Africa.

A Young Girl As The Missing Link

The remains of a 3,100-year-old girl in Tanzania was another welcome revelation. The international team found that one-third of her DNA came from the Near East.

While previous studies have hinted at such a legacy, this study reveals that people from the Near East must have migrated into East Africa at least 3,100 years ago – an integral finding that helps date this once-murky connection. 

"With this sample in hand, we can now say more about who these people were," said Skoglund. Hopefully, this is just the start of what is sure to be more discoveries about Africa’s prehistoric past. 

"The late Stone Age in Africa is like a black hole, research-wise," said Reich. "Ancient DNA can address that gap."

Jessica C. Thompson/Emory University


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