Oldest Human DNA from Africa Clues Us On Ancient Moroccan Heritage

In 2015 the first African ancient genome of 4,500-year-old human remains found in Ethiopia were published. Now more ancient Africa DNA has been found and published.  The study I am referring to came out in Science which outlines the findings of seven 15,000-year-old modern humans from Morocco. This paper now holds the results of the oldest human DNA ever obtained from Africa.

Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum excavates one of the ancient Moroccan skeletons. Credit: Ian Cartwright/School of Archaeology
Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum excavates one of the ancient Moroccan skeletons. Credit: Ian Cartwright/School of Archaeology

The DNA samples come from one of the most ancient cemeteries in the world, the Grotte des Pigeons, in northeast Morocco, by Oujda. This site was discovered in 1908 and has been excavated since 1940. These ancient Moroccans buried their dead upright. They adorned them with beads and animal horns and had small, sophisticated stone arrowheads and points. A very good paper from 2012 in the Journal of Human Evolution documents the funerary rites of these people.

This unique way of burying their and their artifacts singled them out as the Iberomaurusian culture. As you can tell the term includes Iberia, which ultimately reflects the theory that the people who lived in this corner of North Africa were closely connected to Europe, perhaps by a land bridge. This theory came from archaeologists in the ’60’s who argued that small blades and the stone tools resembled Gravettian culture… A culture that swept Southern Europe during the Upper Paleolithic and possibly entered North Africa. Iberomaurusian sites have been found across the Maghreb.

While excavating Grotte des Pigeons in 2005, Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum in London and colleagues found the remains of 14 individuals amongst those intricate artifacts and burials. Marieke van de Loosdrecht and Matthias Meyer of Max Planck then extracted DNA. That is a feat in itself because the warm Moroccan temperature degrades ancient DNA. Van de Loosdrecht joined Choongwon Jeong to analyze the DNA.

Their analysis tells a different story than the prevailing theory on the origins of the Iberomaurusians. Rather than being of European origin, they were likely Middle Easterners and Sub-Saharan Africans. These Iberomaurasians were approximately 66% related to Natufians. Natufians are a group of hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago. The remaining one-third are shared with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania. In other words, these people migrating in and out of North Africa and had no European heritage.

This is a remarkable paper. It is a marriage of archaeology, paleoanthropology and genetics. It uses a new line of evidence, ancient DNA, that is challenging to extract from warm environments to tell us new things that we incorrectly assumed before based on the archaeological record.


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