South Africa: a home more ancient than anyone thought

To an archaeologist, anthropologist or geneticist, South Africa is irresistible

And to tantalise the scientific tastebuds even further, two studies which came out this week and last have found that South Africa holds an even more ancient human history than anyone thought.

1. Little Foot

Australopithecus prometheus

In case you didn’t know, it is this country which has yielded some of the oldest and most significant fossil humans (hominins) found to date. The majority of these human relatives have been unearthed from the cave systems in Sterkfontein, Malapa, Taung and Swartkrans in Gauteng – including the famous ‘Mrs Ples’ and ‘Taung Child’ (Australopithecus africanus), Paranthropus robustus, and Australopithecus sediba.  These extinct South African human species date back to early days in human evolution; from ~3 to ~1.2 million years ago, though were unlikely our direct ancestors (as indicated by the recent find of a 2.8myo jaw bone in Ethiopia belonging to our genus Homo).

In the 1990’s, a new Australopithecus specimen was dug up in Sterkfontein which didn’t fit into any of the Australopithecus species already described. ‘Little Foot’ (Australopithecus prometheus) as it’s been affectionately known, was dated to ~2.2myo (million years old) based on the flowstones in which the fossil lay, though this dating was controversial. 9 years later, a team has re-dated Little Foot to 3.67mya, indicating that this species of hominin lived 1.47 million years earlier than thought, and at the same time as the famous East African species Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’). Clearly the early players in human evolution (the early australopiths) were far more wide-ranging and diverse than we thought. Though the oldest of the oldest hominins belong to east and central Africa, the South African hominin record gets pushed back further in time.

2. The San

The San, or bushmen, are thought to be one of the oldest human lineages, still practising a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert of Botswana and Namibia (though they’re being horribly repressed by the Botswanan government).

Mitochondrial DNA is an amazing piece of wizardry that evolutionary geneticists can use to track past population movements. Using mtDNA, previous studies have found that the San lineage broke off from that of every other human around 150,000 years ago, however a new study has re-analysed this date finding that the distinct San haplogroup (the unique mitochondrial DNA group that the San belong to) ‘L0d’ diverged from the main human line ~172,000 years ago. That’s incredibly old! Considering that our species (Homo sapiens) only evolved ~200,000 years ago, you can see how ancient the San lineage is. It is, in fact, the oldest offshoot from the main human lineage (of those analysed in this study).

And so although South Africa may not be the ancestral land of all modern humans, it has sure been a hospitable host to evolving hominins for at least 3,670,000 years


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