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Ancient DNA gives insight into the history of sub-Saharan Africa

A study on ancient DNA gives a new glimpse into the genetic history of the sub-Saharan Africa.

A large scale study on ancient human DNA provides new information on past migration patterns and population shifts of sub-Saharan Africa, new research published in the journal Cell reports.

The findings could help answer different questions about the ancestry of the region, including how hunter-gatherer lifestyle and population distribution changed before farmers and animal herders swept across the continent some 3,000 years ago.

“The last few thousand years were an incredibly rich and formative period that is key to understanding how populations in Africa got to where they are today,” said study co-author David Reich, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, according to “Ancestry during this time period is such an unexplored landscape that everything we learned was new.”

Ancient DNA is a great paleontological tool because it is one of the only ways researchers can look into past genomic diversity. However, Africa has been hard to study because the warm climate rapidly breaks down genetic tissue. Only recently have new technological advancements made such research possible.

In the new study, an team of international researchers used such technology to take DNA from the remains of 15 sub-Saharan Africans that dated back to between 500 to 8,500 years ago. They then compared the genomes against almost 600 present-day people from 59 African populations and 300 people from 142 non-African groups.

This showed a large population diversity existed between 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. It also revealed that hunter-gatherer populations quickly disappeared when farmers reached Malawi. Not only that, but those hunters also have no ties to the people living in the region today.

That suggests there was a complete population replacement, which has not been found anywhere else on Earth. In addition, the research similarly sheds light on the origins of many unique groups across the continent and could give a true glimpse into the humans that lived there.

Little is known about the people of ancient Africa. The team hopes the new findings will encourage more investigation into the past and help scientists get a better idea of the diverse genetic landscape.

“Africa is now going to be fully included in the ancient genomics revolution,” added Reich, according to The New York Times. “We’re going to be able to do a lot of things in Africa that we’ve been able to do in Europe and elsewhere.”

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