Africa’s hidden people hold the keys to the past

I mentioned this in passing on my post on ASHG 2012, but it seems useful to make explicit. For the past few years there has been word of research pointing to connections between the Khoisan and the Cushitic people of Ethiopia. To a great extent in the paper which is forthcoming there is the likely answer to the question of who lived in East Africa before the Bantu, and before the most recent back-migration of West Eurasians. On one level I’m confused as to why this has to be something of a mystery, because the most recent genetic evidence suggests a admixture on the order of 2-3,000 years before the past.* If the admixture was so recent we should find many of the “first people,” no? As it is, we don’t. I think these groups, and perhaps the Sandawe, are the closest we’ll get.

Publication is imminent at this point (of this, I was assured), so I’m going to just state the likely candidate population (or at least one of them): the Sanye, who speak a Cushitic language with possible Khoisan influences. There really isn’t that much information on these people, which is why when I first heard about the preliminary results a few years back and looked around for Khoisan-like populations in Kenya I wasn’t sure I’d hit upon the right group. But at ASHG I saw some STRUCTURE plots with the correct populations, and the Sanye were one of them. I would have liked to see something like TreeMix, but the STRUCTURE results were of a quality that I could accept that these populations were not being well modeled by the variation which dominated their data set. Though Cushitic in language the Sanye had far less of the West Eurasian element present among other Cushitic speaking populations of the Horn of Africa. Neither were their African ancestral components quite like that of the Nilotic or Bantu populations. The clustering algorithm was having a “hard time” making sense of them (it seemed to wanted to model them as linear combinations of more familiar groups, but was doing a bad job of it).

Here is an interesting article on these groups: Little known tribe that census forgot. Like the Sandawe this is a population which seems to have been hunter-gatherers very recently, and to some extent still engage in this lifestyle. In this way I think they are fundamentally different from Indian tribal populations, who are often held up to be the “first people” of the subcontinent.  More and more it seems that the tribes of India are less the descendants of the original inhabitants of the subcontinent, at least when compared to the typical Indian peasant, and more simply those segments of the Indian population which were marginalized and pushed into less productive territory. Over time they naturally diverged culturally because of their isolation, but the difference was not primal. In contrast, groups like the Sanye and Sandawe may have mixed to a great extent with their neighbors (and lost their language like the Pygmies), but evidence of full featured hunting & gathering lifestyles implies a sort of direct cultural continuity with the landscape of eastern Africa before the arrival of farmers and pastoralists from the west and north.

* I understand some readers refuse to accept the likelihood of these results because of other lines of information. I am just relaying the results of the geneticists. I am not interested in re-litigating prior discussions on this. We’ll probably have a resolution soon enough.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression