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Proud of Your Ancestry? Namibia’s Khoisan Have You Beat

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 5, 2014

141204074144-largeOne of the great experiences of my life was to travel with Khoisan hunters as they tracked wildlife in northwestern Namibia. They didn’t dress all that differently from other Namibians. (That traditional half-naked look in the photograph is something they seem to do now mainly at the behest of photographers.) But, lord, they were different: For me, it was like being illiterate among scholars who had devoted their lives (and hearts and souls) to studying the subtle nuances of the footprint.

I remember one night when an African wild cat had come into the camp and stolen the precious organ meat from a kill, which the Khoisan had hung up a tree for safekeeping.  When they discovered their loss in the morning, the two hunters simply followed the trail back to the cat’s lair, and re-claimed their meat. But, sorry, let me get to the point.

A new genetic study has revealed just how different, and ancient, the Khosan lineage really is.  And yet they were the majority of the human species just 20,000 years ago, meaning their evolution was our evolution. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Through advanced computation analysis, a team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and Penn State University found that these Southern African Khoisan tribespeople are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans.

The team also found that there are individuals of the Khoisan population whose ancestors did not interbreed with any of the other ethnic groups for the last 150,000 years and that Khoisan was the majority group of living humans for most of that time until about 20,000 years ago.

Their findings mean it is now possible to use genetic sequencing to reveal the ancestral lineage of any ethnic group even up to 200,000 years ago, if non-admixed individuals are found, like in the case of the Khoisan. This will show when in history there have been important genetic changes to an ancestral lineage due to

intermarriages or geographical migrations that may have occurred over the centuries.

“Khoisan hunter/gatherers in Southern Africa have always perceived themselves as the oldest people,” said Prof. Stephan Christoph Schuster, an NTU scientist at the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and a former Penn State University professor.

“Our study proves that they truly belong to one of mankind’s most ancient lineages, and these high quality genome sequences obtained from the tribesmen will help us better understand human population history, especially the understudied branch of mankind such as the Khoisan.

“The new data gathered will also enable scientists to better understand how the human genome has evolved and hopefully lead to more effective treatment options for certain genetic diseases and illnesses.”

Of the five tribesmen who were the oldest members of the Ju/’hoansi tribe and other tribes living in protected areas of northwest Namibia, two individuals were found to have a genome which had not admixed with other ethnic groups.

The Ju/’hoansi tribe was made famous in the 80s and 90s by the box-office hit movie series “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The main character of the series was a hunter/gatherer tribesman, played by Nǃxau, a bushman.

The research paper’s first author, Dr Hie Lim Kim, a SCELSE senior research fellow, said “it was very surprising that this group apparently did not intermarry with non-Khoisan neighbours for thousands of years.” This is because the Khoisan peoples and the rest of modern humanity shared their most recent common ancestor around 150,000 years ago.

The current Khoisan culture and tradition, where marriage occurs either among Khoisan groups or results in female members leaving their tribes after marrying non-Khoisan men, appears to be long-standing.

“A key finding from this study is that even today after 150,000 years, single non-admixed individuals or descendants of those who did not interbreed with separate populations can be identified within the Ju/’hoansi population, which means there might be more of such unique individuals in other parts of the world,” added Dr Kim.

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