Fossils in the Blood

Scientists Find Ancient DNA in Living Africans

One of the myths about the San is that their genes are what enable them to survive in the harsh Kalahari climate, where the nights are frigid, the days scorching, and water is scarce. But while they may have evolved some advantageous traits, the notion that they owe their survival mainly to unique physical characteristics is false, says Phillip Tobias, a South African anthropologist who has studied the Khoisan. He notes that the San traditionally filled ostrich shells with water and buried them for use in dry times, that they drank the juices out of the stomach of freshly hunted animals, and that they smeared their skin with animal fat to keep from dehydrating. Such "cultural tricks," he says, were more important than any genetic mutations in helping them to survive.

Now the San face the harsh climate of a culture stacked against them. Again their survival depends not on their genes, but on the ability to adapt culturally. But this time, their way of life depends not only on the San themselves, but on whether southern Africa's majority populations can overcome one of humanity's oldest and possibly inherent characteristics: prejudice.

Research intern: Elinore Longobardi

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