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Ancient DNA tells the story of the first herders and farmers in east Africa

A collaborative study led by archaeologists, geneticists and museum curators is providing answers to previously unsolved questions about life in sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago. Researchers from North American, European and African institutions analyzed ancient DNA from 41 human skeletons curated in the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia. The research provides a look at the origins and movements of early African food producers. The first form of food production to spread through most of Africa was the herding of cattle, sheep and goats. This way of life continues to support millions of people living on the arid grasslands that cover much of sub-Saharan Africa. Previous archaeological research shows that the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania was a key site for the transition from foraging to herding. Herders of livestock first appeared in northern Kenya around 5000 years ago, associated with elaborate monumental cemeteries, and then spread south into the Rift Valley, where Pastoral Neolithic cultures developed. The new genetic results reveal that this spread of herding into Kenya and Tanzania involved groups with ancestry derived from northeast Africa, who appeared in East Africa and mixed with local foragers there between about 4,500-3,500 years ago. Previously, the origins and timing of these population shifts were unclear, and some archaeologists hypothesized that domestic animals spread through exchange networks, rather than by movement of people.

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