Excavation of the burial site at the Shum Laka rock shelter in Cameroon that contained the remains of two children who lived around 8,000 years ago (Photo by Isabelle Ribot, January 1994)
An international research team including Scott MacEachern, Duke Kunshan’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, has produced the first whole-genome ancient human DNA sequences from West and Central Africa.
Scientists recovered the data from two pairs of children buried at an iconic archaeological site in Cameroon from between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago, at the transition from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
The work, led by Harvard Medical School, sheds light on the deep ancestral relationships among early Homo sapiens in sub-Saharan Africa and illuminates previously unknown “ghost” populations that contributed small portions of DNA to present-day African groups. The findings were published in Nature on Jan. 22.
A general view of the Shum Laka excavation site
While the findings do not speak directly to the origins of Bantu language, they do shed light on multiple phases of the deep history of Homo sapiens. Researchers examined the DNA of the Shum Laka children alongside published DNA from ancient hunter-gatherers from eastern and southern Africa, as well as DNA from many present-day African groups. Combining these datasets, they were able to construct a model of diverging lineages over the course of the human past.
“Data from ancient DNA, used in combination with evidence from archaeology and other disciplines, is dramatically changing our understanding of the human past,” said MacEachern. “We see this research as an initial contribution in an area that is of immense importance in understanding African prehistory and the history of humanity more broadly.”