Fossils in the Blood

Scientists Find Ancient DNA in Living Africans

But then, no one ever needed DNA analysis to oppress the San. That's why Xixai Gakekgosi, a politically active villager, doesn't fear racist ramifications from the new research. It can hardly make matters worse, he says. "People already see us as outsiders and look down on us."

In nearby Quaa village, some women spot a mophane worm in a tree, and a boy clambers up into the branches to knock it down. Like the sweet, yellow-orange motsontsojane berries, this worm is one of the many delicacies relished by the !Kung hunter-gatherers. Avoiding the sharp, black spines that jut out from its blue and yellow body, a woman tosses the worm, fat and long as a breakfast sausage, onto hot coals. While it cooks, an elder named Tcgoma Xontae plays a handmade lyre called a quru and sings in a high, beautiful voice.

San elders with their grandson: scientists have found genetic fragments in this tribe that may date back to the origin of humans.
photo: Mark Schoofs
San elders with their grandson: scientists have found genetic fragments in this tribe that may date back to the origin of humans.

But if the scene appears idyllic, the life of the San is not. "My parents could control the forest and go out to hunt," says Xontae. "But now someone else controls our life." Indeed, for all practical purposes, the Botswana government has barred the San from hunting. Most have been removed from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The few licenses that are granted limit the hunting season and the number of animals the San can kill.

It's merely the latest chapter in an ancient history of oppression. The Bantu-speaking Africans, farmers who expanded throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa from the area near the present-day border between Nigeria and Cameroon, pushed the Khoisan off their land, sometimes enslaved them, and deemed them inferior. White Christian settlers slaughtered thousands of these indigenous people and had serious debates about whether the Gospels applied to them. (The Khoikhoi, called Hottentots by the Dutch settlers, herd cattle, while the San, to whom they are closely related, live by hunting and gathering.)

In the 1970s, the army of the old apartheid South Africa used the San as scouts in its war against Namibia and Angola. Pawns in a war that wasn't theirs, those scouts and their families—about 4000 people altogether—now live in a tent city in South Africa, hundreds of miles from their homeland. And in Botswana, which has some of the world's richest diamond deposits, mining interests inevitably prevail in land disputes.

The San are quite possibly the most studied indigenous people on earth, yet myths about them abound. The San are reputed to be wholly innocent and peaceable—"the Harmless People," as the title of one influential book put it—but, as the anthropologist Richard Lee documented, murder does happen, and the San sometimes execute the perpetrators.

But nothing has been as damaging as the myth that the San are backward and primitive, which is profoundly entrenched in southern Africa. One widespread misconception is that they do not wash. A recent report on the educational problems facing the San—they have astronomical dropout rates—reported that one boarding school headmaster wouldn't give San children mattresses or even blankets, on the rationale that their unwashed bodies would dirty the bedding. It is possible that their isolation—first geographic, then cultural—is what preserved the ancestral genetic patterns.

Forced to abandon their traditional way of life but barred by prejudice from joining modern life, the San now subsist in a kind of limbo. In this region of Botswana, they live mainly on government food handouts. While they used to store what they gathered for future use, now they try to sell it—and the cash often buys alcohol and tobacco.

"We don't have a life, says Xuma Kgao. "There is nothing we can do for ourselves. Our hands and feet have been cut off."

Joining the discussion on the origin of humanity, a young mother named Nxae Nxu rules out the possibility that people evolved from animals. "The first two people were San, and we were always like this," she says. So why do the races look so different? "That's a tough one," she says, laughing. "After God created these first two people, they had children, and generation after generation they started to change a bit."

And that, pretty much, is what the geneticists also think. They examined DNA from the Y chromosome, which is passed only from father to son, and from the mitochondria, tiny cellular proto-organisms that are passed down the maternal line. Using various mathematical models to estimate how frequently mutations are made, the researchers estimated the age of the different genetic variants, called polymorphisms.

At least two teams, working independently and looking at different parts of the Y chromosome, found that the oldest variants are most common in the Khoisan. Jenkins and Soodyall also analyzed the mitochondrial DNA. Virtually all of the !Kung have the most ancient mitochondrial fragments, which date to about 120,000 years ago, roughly the time humans are thought to have evolved into their modern form. The genetic findings accord with at least one line of fossil evidence, and various likely mathematical models yield similar results. Yet just as fossil evidence has often been reassessed, this genetic analysis could be off the mark. As one !Kung man said about the research, "I don't know my relationship to the first people, because I wasn't alive then."

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