African Skeleton’s DNA Sheds Light on Human Origins

What can DNA from the skeleton of a man who lived 2,330 years ago in the southernmost tip of Africa tell us about ourselves as humans? A great deal when his DNA profile is one of the earliest diverged – oldest in genetic terms – found to date in a region where modern humans are believed to have originated roughly 200,000 years ago.

The man’s mitochondrial DNA was sequenced to provide clues to early modern human prehistory and evolution. Mitochondrial DNA provided the first evidence that we all come from Africa, and helps us map a figurative genetic tree, all branches deriving from a common “Mitochondrial Eve.”

When archaeologist Prof. Andrew Smith from the Univ. of Cape Town discovered the skeleton at St. Helena Bay in 2010, very close to the site where 117,000 year old human footprints had been found – dubbed “Eve’s footprints” – he contacted Prof. Vanessa Hayes, a world-renowned expert in African genomes.

At the time, Hayes was a professor of genetic medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California. She now heads the Laboratory for Human Comparative and Prostate Cancer Genomics at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

The complete 1.5 meter tall skeleton was examined by Professor Alan Morris, from the University of Cape Town. A biological anthropologist, Morris showed that the man was a marine forager. A bony growth in his ear canal, known as surfer’s ear, suggested that he spent some time diving for food in the cold coastal waters, while shells carbon-dated to the same period, and found near his grave, confirmed his seafood diet. Osteoarthritis and tooth wear placed him in his fifties.

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