Researchers have sequenced the oldest human DNA from Africa, uncovering that the ancient people living in North Africa had far more contact with those living in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa than previously thought.
The history of the ancient Moroccans, who were called the Iberomaurusians because the researchers who discovered them thought they were likely connected to people on the Iberian Peninsula, has interested anthropologists for a long time. This is because Morocco sits in an interesting place when it comes to understanding ancient human migration, with a barrier to the south in the form of the Sahara, and a barrier to the north caused by the Mediterranean Sea.
Known from the Grotte des Pigeons cave, discovered in 1908 near Oujda, Morocco, they are recognized as the first hunter-gatherer people in North Africa to make a shift from large heavy stone spearheads to more refined and delicate microliths, which could well have been mounted on arrows around 22,000 years ago.
Because this technological advancement is known to have occurred at an earlier date in parts of Europe, and coupled with the proximity of Morocco to Spain, it was long assumed that either the Iberomaurusians were descended from Europeans, or had used boats to cross over to Iberia and that there was a certain degree of mixing.
But this new genetic analysis is challenging that notion. In 2005, researchers discovered what is thought to be one of the earliest cemeteries known in existence, as 14 burials were found at the back of the Grotte des Pigeons cave. Dating to around 15,000 years old, the people were carefully placed in a seated position and draped with beads and animal horns.
DNA degrades rapidly in warmer climates, which means that while we have genomes of Neanderthals who died out over 40,000 years ago, to date we only have scant genetic evidence of humans from the African continent. But recent technological advances meant that scientists were able to take the ear bones of seven of the Iberomaurusian remains and sequence their nuclear genomes.
This is the oldest DNA ever sequenced in Africa, and it's almost twice as old as the previous record holder. The study also marks the first time human DNA that predates agriculture has been studied in Africa.
The findings show that these ancient people shared no genetic history with Europeans, and were instead related to Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans. “Our analysis shows that North Africa and the Near East, even at this early time, were part of one region without much of a genetic barrier,” explained Choongwon Jeong, who co-authored the study published in Science.
It also suggests either that the Sahara wasn't much of a barrier, as the Iberomaurusians shared a third of their DNA with ancient West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania, or that there was a common ancestor to all these groups.
The study hopefully opens up the way for more studies on ancient African remains, as even though we evolved there, we still know very little about our ancient history on the continent.