mtDNA shows Pygmy hunter-gathers have a deep ancestry with Bantu farmers

The Pygmy hunter–gatherers of central Africa are an amalgamation of various groups of people that are on average about 4 feet tall. Some genetic and linguistic evidence point to them being direct descendants of hunter-gatherers from the late Stone Age. But that’s about it, there’s not much archaeological evidence to corroborate with this observation.

Most modern day Pygmy populations live in the rain forest alongside Bantu-speaking farmers. It is one of the few places in the world were we see cohabitation of hunter-gatherers with farmers. These two groups have very different lifestyles and a new multidisciplinary study sought to determine to what extent social, cultural and demographic factors have influenced the genetic heritage of these two populations.

The open access paper, “Maternal traces of deep common ancestry and asymmetric gene flow between Pygmy hunter–gatherers and Bantu-speaking farmers,” is published in PNAS. The authors analyzed the variation in mtDNA of 1,404 individuals from 20 Bantu farming populations and 9 Pygmy populations. They were able to identify a sing ancestral and indigenous lineage of mtDNA that was formerly shared by Pygmies and Bantu people. The Pygmy lineage diverged from the ancestral population about 70,000 years ago, at which point they began to be isolated and when the short phenotype began to differentiate. Pygmy variability is much more weak compared to the variability observed in Bantu populations which tells us that modern Pygmies came from a small common ancestor population.

And since they were comparing mtDNA, starting 40,000 years ago, the researchers were able to identify that female Pygmies were reproducing with Bantu males. Subsequently, the mtDNA gene pool of the Pygmies was not enriched by external gene influxes. The Bantu farmer gene pool, however, was enriched during the so-called “Bantu expansions”, an event corresponding to technological, demographic and linguistic advances in the late Stone Age.

The authors write that they wanna expand their study to Y-chromosomal relationships between these two groups and also to study the relationships between the genome and the populations’ vulnerability or resistance to pathogens. Why do they wanna do this? Well, as Razib has written often, the transition into sedentary lifestyle is often accompanied with a shakeup on populations, pathogens, and selection.

    Quintana-Murci, L., Quach, H., Harmant, C., Luca, F., Massonnet, B., Patin, E., Sica, L., Mouguiama-Daouda, P., Comas, D., Tzur, S., Balanovsky, O., Kidd, K.K., Kidd, J.R., van der Veen, L., Hombert, J., Gessain, A., Verdu, P., Froment, A., Bahuchet, S., Heyer, E., Dausset, J., Salas, A., Behar, D.M. (2008). Maternal traces of deep common ancestry and asymmetric gene flow between Pygmy hunter-gatherers and Bantu-speaking farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(5), 1596-1601. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711467105

9 thoughts on “mtDNA shows Pygmy hunter-gathers have a deep ancestry with Bantu farmers

  1. The various “pygmy” groups of Africa are of the greatest interest, both genetically and culturally. The most decisive evidence of their historical importance stems, as I see it, from their very distinctive musical traditions, which are almost certainly survivals from the Upper Paleolithic, if not earlier. Neighboring “Bantu” groups tend to share certain features of Pygmy musical style, a phenomenon that has sometimes been attributed to aesthetic influence — which makes some sense considering the reputation of Pygmies as master musicians among most neighboring “Bantu” groups.

    The meDNA research suggests a somewhat different explanation, however: the influence of Pygmy women taken as wives by “Bantu” men. Since these women might well tend to raise their children according to Pygmy traditions, it’s not difficult to see how certain aspects of Pygmy musical practice could seep in to Bantu culture over time. As the research you’ve referenced suggests, these are relationships that go back thousands of years, so there would have been plenty of time for the musical traditions to meld.

    For more on Pygmy music, its history, and its relation to the music of neighboring non-pygmy groups, see my recently published essay, “New Perspectives on the Kalahari Debate,” in the latest issue of Before Farming:

  2. You wrote: “Some genetic and linguistic evidence point to them being direct descendants of hunter-gatherers from the late Stone Age.” i read the referred article, but can not find any linguistic evidence for that. Now all pygmy speaks bantu, (only one eastern groups speaks nilo-saharitic) there are some proposal for substratum, but lots of languages within a family have some substratum. This gives evidence to nothing …

  3. Vaclav, on page 12, I found this,

    “One of the most intractable problems in reconstructing African linguistic prehistory is whether the pygmies ever had their own language. Letouzey (1976) made a preliminary attempt to recover a substrate language through the use of plant names but without any very convincing results. Bahuchet (1992, 1993) presents a challenging view of the history of the pygmy populations, in particular the Aka and the Baka. Despite speaking Niger-Congo languages of quite different genetic affiliation, these groups prove to have common vocabulary, concerning especially with food-gathering in the rain-forest. If Bahuchet is right, then this vocabulary constitutes a trace of the lost language of the pygmies. Bahuchet further argues that the reduction in the rain-forest at the end of the Pleistocene isolated pygmoid groups in relict forest. These groups diffused outwards when the forest began to expand again, eventually encountering the incoming Bantu cultivators. “

    That’s all.


  4. Thanks Kambiz. That whole link you provided is fascinating but I haven’t had time to read it all yet.

  5. Mitochondrial DNA is really interesting. All of us inherit it from our mothers, it has significant impact in forensic medicine, one can study anthropological parameters with it, has a role in aging, in addition to their immense importance in producing our energy currencies in the form of ATP. I wrote one topic about it in my url:
    I hope to write about oxidative phosphorylation some time later.

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