Recent Discoveries in Human Evolution: H. Sapiens 300,000 years old?

Welcome back to our discussion of recent exciting advances in our knowledge of human evolution:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

As we’ve been discussing for the past couple of weeks, the exact dividing line between “human” and “non-human” isn’t always hard and fast. The very first Homo species, such as Homo habilis, undoubtedly had more in common with its immediate Australopithecine ancestors than with today’s modern humans, 3 million years later, but that doesn’t mean these dividing lines are meaningless. Homo sapiens and Homo neandethalensis, while considered different species, interbred and produced fertile offspring (most non-Africans have 3-5% Neanderthal DNA as a result of these pairings;) by contrast, humans and chimps cannot produce fertile offspring, because humans and chimps have a different number of chromosomes. The genetic distance between the two groups is just too far.

Oldowan tool

The grouping of ancient individuals into Homo or not-Homo, Erectus or Habilis, Sapiens or not, is partly based on physical morphology–what they looked like, how they moved–and partly based on culture, such as the ability to make tools or control fire. While australopithecines made some stone tools (and chimps can make tools out of twigs to retrieve tasty termites from nests,) Homo habilis (“handy man”) was the first to master the art and produce large numbers of more sophisticated tools for different purposes, such as this Oldowan chopper.

But we also group species based on moral or political beliefs–scientists generally believe it would be immoral to say that different modern human groups belong to different species, and so the date when Homo ergaster transforms into Homo sapiens is dependent on the date when the most divergent human groups alive today split apart–no one wants to come up with a finding that will get trumpeted in media as “Scientists Prove Pygmies aren’t Human!” (Pygmies already have enough problems, what with their immediate neighbors actually thinking they aren’t human and using their organs for magic rituals.)

(Of course they would still be Human even if they part of an ancient lineage.)

But if an ecologically-minded space alien arrived on earth back in 1490 and was charged with documenting terrestrial species, it might easily decide–based on morphology, culture, and physical distribution–that there were several different Homo “species” which all deserve to be preserved.

But we are not space aliens, and we have the concerns of our own day.

So when a paper was published last year on archaic admixture in Pygmies and the Pygmy/Bushmen/everyone else split, West Hunter noted the authors used a fast–but discredited–estimate of mutation rate to avoid the claim that Pygmies split off 300,000 years ago, 100,000 years before the emergence of Homo sapiens:

There are a couple of recent papers on introgression from some quite divergent archaic population into Pygmies ( this also looks to be the case with Bushmen). Among other things, one of those papers discussed the time of the split between African farmers (Bantu) and Pygmies, as determined from whole-genome analysis and the mutation rate. They preferred to use the once-fashionable rate of 2.5 x 10-8 per-site per-generation (based on nothing), instead of the new pedigree-based estimate of about 1.2 x 10-8 (based on sequencing parents and child: new stuff in the kid is mutation). The old fast rate indicates that the split between Neanderthals and modern humans is much more recent than the age of early Neanderthal-looking skeletons, while the new slow rate fits the fossil record – so what’s to like about the fast rate? Thing is, using the slow rate, the split time between Pygmies and Bantu is ~300k years ago – long before any archaeological sign of behavioral modernity (however you define it) and well before the first known fossils of AMH (although that shouldn’t bother anyone, considering the raggedness of the fossil record).

This was a good catch. (Here is the relevant Dienekes article, plus Model-based analyses of whole-genome data reveal a complex evolutionary history involving archaic introgression in Central African Pygmies, and Whole-genome sequence analyses of Western Central African Pygmy hunter-gatherers reveal a complex demographic history and identify candidate genes under positive natural selection.) If the slow mutation rate matches the fossil record better than the fast, why use the fast–except if the fast gives you inconvenient results?

But now we have another finding, based on the Bushmen, which also pushes the Bushmen/everyone else split back further than 200,000 years–from BioRxiv, “Ancient genomes from southern Africa pushes modern human divergence beyond 260,000 years ago“:

Southern Africa is consistently placed as one of the potential regions for the evolution of Homo sapiens. To examine the region’s human prehistory prior to the arrival of migrants from East and West Africa or Eurasia in the last 1,700 years, we generated and analyzed genome sequence data from seven ancient individuals from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Three Stone Age hunter-gatherers date to ~2,000 years ago, and we show that they were related to current-day southern San groups such as the Karretjie People. Four Iron Age farmers (300-500 years old) have genetic signatures similar to present day Bantu-speakers. The genome sequence (13x coverage) of a juvenile boy from Ballito Bay, who lived ~2,000 years ago, demonstrates that southern African Stone Age hunter-gatherers were not impacted by recent admixture; however, we estimate that all modern-day Khoekhoe and San groups have been influenced by 9-22% genetic admixture from East African/Eurasian pastoralist groups arriving >1,000 years ago, including the Ju|’hoansi San, previously thought to have very low levels of admixture. Using traditional and new approaches, we estimate the population divergence time between the Ballito Bay boy and other groups to beyond 260,000 years ago.

260,000 years! Looks like West Hunter was correct, and we should be looking at the earlier Pygmy divergence date, too.

Two days later, a paper from the opposite end of Africa appeared in Nature which–potentially–pushes H sapiens’s emergence to 300,000 years ago, “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens“:

Fossil evidence points to an African origin of Homo sapiens from a group called either H. heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis. However, the exact place and time of emergence of H. sapiens remain obscure … In particular, it is unclear whether the present day ‘modern’ morphology rapidly emerged approximately 200 thousand years ago (ka) among earlier representatives of H. sapiens1 or evolved gradually over the last 400 thousand years2. Here we report newly discovered human fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and interpret the affinities of the hominins from this site with other archaic and recent human groups. We identified a mosaic of features including facial, mandibular and dental morphology that aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans and more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology. In combination with an age of 315 ± 34 thousand years (as determined by thermoluminescence dating)3, this evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established.

Comparison of the skulls of a Jebel Irhoud human (left) and a modern human (right) (NHM London)

Hublin–one of the study’s coauthors–notes that between 330,000 and 300,000 years ago, the Sahara was green and animals could range freely across it.

While the Moroccan fossils do look like modern H sapiens, they also still look a lot like pre-sapiens, and the matter is still up for debate. Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer suggests that we should consider all of our ancestors after the Neanderthals split off to be Homo sapiens, which would make our species 500,000 years old. Others would undoubtedly prefer to use a more recent date, arguing that the physical and cultural differences between 500,000 year old humans and today’s people are too large to consider them one species.

According to the Atlantic:

[The Jebel Irhoud] people had very similar faces to today’s humans, albeit with slightly more prominent brows. But the backs of their heads were very different. Our skulls are rounded globes, but theirs were lower on the top and longer at the back. If you saw them face on, they could pass for a modern human. But they turned around, you’d be looking at a skull that’s closer to extinct hominids like Homo erectus. “Today, you wouldn’t be able to find anyone with a braincase that shape,” says Gunz.

Their brains, though already as large as ours, must also have been shaped differently. It seems that the size of the human brain had already been finalized 300,000 years ago, but its structure—and perhaps its abilities—were fine-tuned over the subsequent millennia of evolution.

No matter how we split it, these are exciting days in the field!

Where Anthropology Went Wrong

Obviously I read a lot of anthropology. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart. Some anthropological works are really good (these I try to share with you here.) Others are drek. (Sometimes I share these, too–but in the spirit of, “Ew, this tastes really weird… Here, try some!” Goodness only knows why people do that.)

In my opinion, anthropology has two main purposes:

  1. To document human cultures, with priority given to those at greatest risk of disappearing
  2. To make human cultures mutually understandable.

I’m reminded here of the response Napoleon Chagnon gave when asked what the Yanomamo thought he was doing, studying their tribe:

“They arrived at their own conclusion, which I thought was very logical: I’m trying to learn how to become human.” –Napoleon Chagnon

So let’s add #3: Learn what it means to be human.

Some anthropologists specialize in #1. Others are talented at #2. A few can do both. Collectively, the enterprise might get us to #3.

For example, many anthropologists have amassed reams of data on kinship structures, marriage taboos, food/wealth distribution, economic systems (eg hunter-gathering, pastoralism, etc.) If you want to know whether the average milch pastoralist thinks cousin marriage is a good idea, an anthropologist probably has the answer. That’s task #1.

But information doesn’t do much good if it just molders away in some dusty back room of a university library, and the average person doesn’t want to read an anthropologist’s field notes. This is where good writing comes in–crafting an enjoyable, accessible ethnography, like Kabloona, which gives the average reader some insight into another culture. That’s task #2.

Anthropology isn’t supposed to be politicized, but in practice it’s difficult not to get sucked into politics. Anthropologists generally become quite fond of the people they’ve studied and lived with for years. Since they prioritize cultures in danger of disappearing, they end up with both practical and sentimental reasons to side against the more powerful groups in the area–no anthropologist wants to see the people he just spent a decade living with starve to death because a mining company moved into the area and dug up their banana farms.

As a result, the anthropologist often becomes a liaison between the people he studies and the broader world he wants to protect them from.

Additionally, like the quantum physicist, the anthropologist changes the society he studies merely by being present in it. He is an outsider, a person with his own ideas about morality, violence, gender relations, education, money, etc., and moreover, entirely alien to the local economic and social system. He cannot simply slip, unnoticed, into village life without disrupting it in some way–this is the existential problem of anthropology, but since it cannot be solved, (and the wider culture has no qualms about disrupting native life in far larger and more damaging ways, like bulldozing it,) as a practical matter it must simply be laid aside.

One thing anthropologists tend not to do is look very closely at the negatives of the societies they study, such as disease, infant mortality, drug abuse, or violence. After all, who wants to produce a book that boils down to, “I studied these people, and they were brutish, nasty, and unpleasant”?

Let’s compare for a moment two classic works: Elizabeth Thomas’s The Harmless People, whose very title lays out her assertion that the Bushmen are less violent and less capable of killing people than other, more technologically advanced peoples; and Chagnon’s Yanomamo: The Fierce People.

Chagnon actually bothered to calculate how many murders his subjects committed, and discovered that the Yanomamo have murder rates much higher than modern first-world nations. For his efforts he has been thoroughly condemned and attacked by his own profession:

When Chagnon began publishing his observations, some cultural anthropologists who could not accept an evolutionary basis for human behavior refused to believe them. Chagnon became perhaps the most famous American anthropologist since Margaret Mead—and the most controversial. He was attacked in a scathing popular book, whose central allegation that he helped start a measles epidemic among the Yanomamö was quickly disproven, and the American Anthropological Association condemned him, only to rescind its condemnation after a vote by the membership. Throughout his career Chagnon insisted on an evidence-based scientific approach to anthropology, even as his professional association dithered over whether it really is a scientific organization.

Thomas does not bother to offer numerical proof of her claims that Bushmen are more peaceful than other groups, but anyone with a mind for numbers can look at the murders she does report, divide by the number of Bushmen, and conclude that homicide rates are most likely higher in Bushman society than ours.

Of course, Thomas has not been castigated and condemned by the AAA for asserting that first world societies are more homicidal than third-world hunter-gatherers without proof.

It would be simplistic to assert that Marxists and Freudians produce bad anthropology; I am sure they would have equally negative things to say about people like me. Rather, the dominance of anthropology by adherents of any particular political ideology is problematic.

(Anthropologists also tend not to examine very critically the reasons people might want to change their societies.)

The second big problem with anthropology is that most “primitive” societies have disappeared or are mere remnants of their former selves. 100 years ago, we didn’t know there were people living in the middle of Papua New Guinea (and the folks there, I gather, didn’t know about the rest of us.) There were still cannibals, uncontacted tribes of hunter-gatherers, and igloo-dwelling Eskimo. Atlases still had blank spots marked “unexplored.”

By the time Thomas wrote “The Harmless People,” the Bushmen were disappearing. Indeed, the book’s epilogue, in which a private land owner fences off a watering hole where the Bushmen had formerly drunk in the dry season, leading several tribe members to die of thirst, followed by the remaining tribe members’ removal to a settlement, where all of the vices of alcoholism and violence set in, makes for difficult reading.

What’s a modern anthropologist to do? Sure, you could write an incredibly depressing ethnography on the ways traditional lifestyles are disappearing, or you could write a dissertation on the intersection of hip-hop culture and queer identity. (And you can do that without spending ten years in some third-world village with malaria and no internet.)

The result of all of this is that anthropologists sometimes stick their noses where they don’t belong, for purely political reasons. Take, for example, the American Anthropological Association (them again!)’s statement on race:

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences.

“Conditioned!” Because there is no evidence that pre-verbal infants notice racial or ethnic differences:

Do babies react differently when they are looking intently at the faces of people of different races?

Psychologist Phyllis Katz has cleverly used habituation to try to answer this question. Katz studied looking patterns among 6-month-old infants. She first showed the babies a series of pictures, each of them was shown a person that was of the same race and gender (e.g., four White women). After four pictures, the babies began to habituate to the pictures, and their attention wavered. Next, Katz showed the babies a picture of a person who was of the same gender but of a different race (e.g., a Black woman), or a picture of a person who was of the same race but of a different gender (e.g., a White man). The logic behind the study was that if the infants didn’t register race or gender, they wouldn’t show a different response to these new pictures– that is, they would continue to show habituation. However, if they registered a difference, the babies should dishabituate, and again look with interest at this new stimulus.

The findings clearly showed that the 6-month-olds dishabituated to both race and gender cues—that is, the infants looked longer at new pictures when the pictures were of someone of a different race or gender. But some other interesting findings emerged. Among these was the finding that for both Black and White infants, the infants attended longer to different race faces when they had habitutated to faces that were of their own race.

Back to the AAA:

Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.

This is dumb. This is really, really dumb. Humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA, but that doesn’t make us the same species. Humans and mice share 92% of our DNA.

Put a dog and a wolf together, and if they don’t kill each other, they’ll breed. Dogs, wolves, dingos, and golden jackals can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but we still consider them different species.

I’m not saying human races are actually different species. I’m saying the AAA is full of idiots who parrot popular science articles without understanding the first thing about them. If these are your “scholarly positions,” you don’t fucking deserve your PhDs.

Oh, and by the way, humans don’t always interbreed. Sometimes one group just exterminates the other. Just ask the Dorset–oh wait you can’t. Because they’re all dead.

Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas.

The fact that “blue” and “green” shade into each other on the rainbow does not mean that blue and green do not exist.

And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture.

It’s like the EDAR gene doesn’t exist:

A derived G-allele point mutation (SNP) with pleiotropic effects in EDAR, 370A or rs3827760, found in most modern East Asians and Native Americans but not common in African or European populations, is thought to be one of the key genes responsible for a number of differences between these populations, including the thicker hair, more numerous sweat glands, smaller breasts, and dentition characteristic of East Asians.[7] …The 370A mutation arose in humans approximately 30,000 years ago, and now is found in 93% of Han Chinese and in the majority of people in nearby Asian populations. This mutation is also implicated in ear morphology differences and reduced chin protusion.[9]

Back to AAA:

Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective.

Haak et all's full dataset
Haak et all’s full dataset

Picture 2So that’s why it’s so hard to distinguish an African from a Caribbean Indian, said no one ever.

Genetically, of course, the divisions between the Big Three main human clades are quite plain.


…indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them.

Unless you need a bone marrow or organ transplant. Then suddenly race matters a lot. Or if you’re trying to live in the Himalayas. Then you’d better hope you’ve got some genes Tibetans inherited from an ancient line of Denisovan hominins their ancestors bred with, present AFAIK nowhere else on Earth, that help them breathe up there.

Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.

People in the past did bad things, so all of their conceptual categories for understanding the world must have been made-up. And evil. There’s no way a European who just met an African and a Native American could have accidentally stumbled on a valid observation about human populations that were historically separated for a long time.

Anyway, the article goes on and on, littered with gems like:

During World War II, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler enjoined the expanded ideology of “race” and “racial” differences and took them to a logical end: the extermination of 11 million people of “inferior races” (e.g., Jews, Gypsies, Africans, homosexuals, and so forth) and other unspeakable brutalities of the Holocaust.

Hear that? If you think there are genetic variations between long-separated human groups, you are basically Hitler and the only logical conclusion is genocide. Because no one ever committed genocide before they invented the idea of race, obviously:

A 2010 study suggests that a group of Anasazi in the American Southwest were killed in a genocide that took place circa 800 CE.[15][16]

Raphael Lemkin, the coiner of the term ‘genocide’, referred to the 1209–1220 Albigensian Crusade ordered by Pope Innocent III against the heretical Cathar population of the French Languedoc region as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history”.[17]

Quoting Eric Margolis, Jones observes that in the 13th century the Mongol armies under Genghis Khan were genocidal killers [18] who were known to eradicate whole nations.[19] He ordered the extermination of the Tata Mongols, and all Kankalis males in Bukhara “taller than a wheel”[20] using a technique called measuring against the linchpin. In the end, half of the Mongol tribes were exterminated by Genghis Khan.[21] Rosanne Klass referred to the Mongols’ rule of Afghanistan as “genocide”.[22]

Similarly, the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane was known for his extreme brutality and his conquests were accompanied by genocidal massacres.[23] William Rubinstein wrote: “In Assyria (1393–4) – Tamerlane got around – he killed all the Christians he could find, including everyone in the, then, Christian city of Tikrit, thus virtually destroying Assyrian Church of the East. Impartially, however, Tamerlane also slaughtered Shi’ite Muslims, Jews and heathens.”[24] Christianity in Mesopotamia was hitherto largely confined to those Assyrian communities in the north who had survived the massacres.[25] Tamerlane also conducted large-scale massacres of Georgian and Armenian Christians, as well as of Arabs, Persians and Turks.[26]

Ancient Chinese texts record that General Ran Min ordered the extermination of the Wu Hu, especially the Jie people, during the Wei–Jie war in the fourth century AD. People with racial characteristics such as high-bridged noses and bushy beards were killed; in total, 200,000 were reportedly massacred.[27]

I’m stopping here. This stuff is politicized drek. It obviously is irrelevant to the vast majority of anthropology (what do I really care if the Inuit are part of the greater Asian clade when I’m just trying to record traditional folk songs?) But this drivel gets served up as the “educated opinions of scholars in the field” (notably, not the field of human genetics) to naive students and they don’t even realize how politically-based it is.

I don’t think anthropologists all need to agree with me about politics, but they should cultivate a healthy interest in science.

Addendum to Race: The Social Construction of a Biological Reality

Now I am going to try to express a bit of nuance, staking out a position somewhere between “race isn’t real” and “Derbyshire is a race traitor.”

In the “race isn’t real” department, we have Sarah Zhang’ Will the Alt-Right Promote a New Kind of Racist Genetics?:

In the genomic age, it is now easy to compare the DNA of people from around the world. And it has indeed revealed that our racial categories are fuzzy proxies for genetic difference—an African man may be more closely related to an Asian than to another African.

From there, Zhang basically tries to argue that race doesn’t real even though genetics and medical science sure make it look real, that the differences in the distribution of genetic traits in large, historically isolated populations don’t matter because of a few tiny populations that are the genetic equivalent of the Basque language.

Kyle Field
Kyle Field, population 102,700

Remember, the world’s entire population of Bushmen wouldn’t even fill the Texas A&M football stadium. Combine them with a few other tiny populations, like the Khoikhoi and Pygmies, and you’re still looking at <1 million people.  Meanwhile, there are billions of Europeans, west Africans, and east Asians.

Mundane racial categories work just fine for the vast majority of people, including the vast majority of Americans, who are not drawn from a rainbow of racially-mixed groups like Tuaregs or fringe outliers like the Bushmen, but from distinct populations of West Africans, Europeans (primarily NW Euros,) Native Americans, and East Asians. If I say someone is “black” or “white,” not only do you understand what I mean, there is an actually consistent genetic reality underlying my statements–in almost 100% of cases, a genetic test would in fact confirm that the people I call “black” are actually primarily Sub-Saharan African by ancestry and the people I call “white” are primarily European by ancestry. Exceptions like Rachel Dolezal are quite rare.

Zhang is trying to argue that you can’t make a reasonable argument about the average distribution of traits between whites, blacks, and Asians in the US because there is a handful of tiny, genetically isolated populations over in Africa. A does not follow from B.

On the other side of the coin, we have people who believe it’s morally imperative to only marry people from one’s own race.

Most of the time, people fall in love with people from their own culture and ethnic group. This is what we’d expect, because you’re more likely to meet and share values with people from your own group. (Interestingly, most people are more genetically similar to their spouses than they are to the average person in their community, not because they married a close relative, but because similar genes make for similar people.)

But some people, for whatever reasons, marrying within their own group isn’t a real option. (White men who are under 5’5″, for example.) These people are looking out for their own best interests–really, if you’re considering calling Derbyshire a race traitor, you’re probably thinking too much about other people’s business.

Capitalism works because it self-corrects; it allows consumers to pick the best products at the best prices, and companies to hire the most talented workers for the best wages. Unlike socialism, where companies are told what and how much to produce, consumers are told what to buy and how much it will cost, and ultimately people starve in the streets, capitalism actually works. Self-interest is a powerful organizing principle that has radically increased the welfare of billions of people over the past century.

And capitalism doesn’t care about race.


Where people live in close proximity to people of other races, some of them will fall in love.

That said, don’t date people for status points or because you’re trying to prove how not-racist you are. Like Obama’s parents, most inter-racial couples don’t stay together; the majority of mixed-race children have parents who are not married–according to one study, 92% of biracial children with black fathers are born out of wedlock and 82% end up on government assistance because their fathers do not bother to take care of them.

picture-6And if you are ever tempted to compare your vagina to the UN because of the sheer number of different ethnicities that have been in it, you need to stop and re-evaluate your life for multiple reasons.


Ultimately, real-life decisions should be based on real-life concerns.

Race: The Social Construction of a Biological Reality, pt 2

Note: This post still contains a lot of oversimplification for the sake of explaining a few things.

Welcome back to our discussion of the geographic dispersion of humanity. On Tuesday, we discussed how two great barriers–the Sahara desert and the Himalayas + central Asian desert–have impeded human travelers over the millennia, resulting in three large, fairly well-defined groups of humans, the major races: Sub-Saharan Africans (SSA), Caucasians, and east Asians.

Of course, any astute motorist, having come to a halt at the Asian end of our highway, might observe that there is, in fact, a great deal of land in the world that we have not yet explored. So we head to the local shop and pick up a better map:


Our new map shows us navigational directions for getting to Melanesia and Australia–in ice age times, it instructs us, we can drive most of the way. If there isn’t an ice age, we’ll have to take a boat.

900px-oceania_un_geoscheme_-_map_of_melanesia-svgThe people of Melanesia and Australia are related, the descendants of one of the first groups of humans to split off from the greater tribe that left Africa some 70k ago.

As the name “Melanesian” implies, they are quite dark-skinned–a result of never having ventured far from the equatorial zone.

Today, they live in eastern Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and a smattering of smaller islands. (Notably, the Maori of New Zealand are Polynesians like the Hawaiians, not Melanesians, descendants of a different migration wave that originated in Taiwan.)

Fijian mountain warrior
Fijian mountain warrior with curly, “African” style hair

There is some speculation that they might have once been wider-spread than they currently are, or that various south-Asian tribes might be related to them, (eg, “A 2009 genetic study in India found similarities among Indian archaic populations and Aboriginal people, indicating a Southern migration route, with expanding populations from Southeast Asia migrating to Indonesia and Australia,”) but I don’t think any mainland group would today be classed as majority Melanesian by DNA.

They may also be related to the scattered tribes of similarly dark-skinned, diminutive people known as the Negritos:

Males from the Aeta people (or Agta) people of The Philippines, are of great interest to genetic, anthropological and historical researchers, as at least 83% of them belong to haplogroup K2b, in the form of its rare primary clades K2b1* and P* (a.k.a. K2b2* or P-P295*).[7] Most Aeta males (60%) carry K-P397 (K2b1), which is otherwise uncommon in the Philippines and is strongly associated with the indigenous peoples of Melanesia and Micronesia. Basal P* is rare outside the Aeta and some other groups within Maritime South East Asia. …

Naural blond hair
Two Melanesian girls from Vanatu (blond hair is common in Melanesian children.)

A 2010 study by the Anthropological Survey of India and the Texas-based Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research identified seven genomes from 26 isolated “relic tribes” from the Indian mainland, such as the Baiga, which share “two synonymous polymorphisms with the M42 haplogroup, which is specific to Australian Aborigines“. These were specific mtDNA mutations that are shared exclusively by Australian aborigines and these Indian tribes, and no other known human groupings.[12]

A study of blood groups and proteins in the 1950s suggested that the Andamanese were more closely related to Oceanic peoples than African Pygmies. Genetic studies on Philippine Negritos, based on polymorphic blood enzymes and antigens, showed they were similar to surrounding Asian populations.[13]

Negrito peoples may descend from Australoid Melanesian settlers of Southeast Asia. Despite being isolated, the different peoples do share genetic similarities with their neighboring populations.[13][14] They also show relevant phenotypic (anatomic) variations which require explanation.[14]

In contrast, a recent genetic study found that unlike other early groups in Malesia, Andamanese Negritos lack the Denisovan hominin admixture in their DNA. Denisovan ancestry is found among indigenous Melanesian and Australian populations between 4–6%.[15][16]

Australian Aboriginal man
Australian Aboriginal man

However, the Negritos are a very small set of tribes, and I am not confident that they are even significantly related to each other, rather than just some short folks living on a few scattered islands. We must leave them for another day.

The vast majority of Aborigines and Melanesians live in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and nearby islands. They resemble Africans, because they split off from the rest of the out-of-Africa crew long before the traits we now associate with “whites” and “Asians” evolved, and have since stayed near the equator, but they are most closely related to–sharing DNA with–south Asians (and Indians.)

So we have, here, on the genetic level, a funny situation. Melanesians are–relatively speaking–a small group. According to Wikipedia, thee are about 12 million Melanesians and 606,000 Aborigines. By contrast, Tokyo prefecture has 13 million people and the total Tokyo metro area has nearly 38 million. Meanwhile, the Han Chinese–not a race but a single, fairly homogenous ethnic group–number around 1.3 billion.

Of all the world’s peoples, Melanesians/Aborigines are most closely related to other Asians–but this is a distant relationship, and those same Asians are more closely related to Caucasians than to Aborigines.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, the diagram, because it is 1-dimensional, can only show the distance between two groups at a time, not all groups. The genetic distance between Caucasians and Aborigines is about 60 or 50k, while the distance between Asians and Caucasians is around 40k, but the distance between Sub-Saharan Africans and ALL non-SSAs is about 70k, whether they’re in Australia, Patagonia, or France. Our map is not designed to show this distance, only the distances between individual pairs.

Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as "gracile," which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built
Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as “gracile,” which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built

Now if we hopped back in our car and zoomed back to the beginning of our trip, pausing to refuel in Lagos, we’d note another small group that has been added to the other end of the map: the Bushmen, aka the Khoi-San people. Wikipedia estimates 90,000 San and doesn’t give an estimate for the Khoi people, but their largest group, the Nama, has about 200,000 people. We’ll estimate the total, therefore, around 500,000 people, just to be safe.

The Bushmen are famous for being among the world’s last hunter-gatherers; their cousins the Khoi people are pastoralists. There were undoubtedly more of them in the past, before both Europeans and Bantus arrived in southern Africa. Some people think Bushmen look a little Asian, due to their lighter complexions than their more equatorial African cousins.


Various Y chromosome studies show that the San carry some of the most divergent (oldest) human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree.[48][49][50]

Mitochondrial DNA studies also provide evidence that the San carry high frequencies of the earliest haplogroup branches in the human mitochondrial DNA tree. This DNA is inherited only from one’s mother. The most divergent (oldest) mitochondrial haplogroup, L0d, has been identified at its highest frequencies in the southern African San groups.[48][51][52][53]

I loved that movie
The late Nǃxau ǂToma, (aka Gcao Tekene Coma,) Bushman star of “The Gods Must be Crazy,” roughly 1944-2003

In a study published in March 2011, Brenna Henn and colleagues found that the ǂKhomani San, as well as the Sandawe and Hadza peoples of Tanzania, were the most genetically diverse of any living humans studied. This high degree of genetic diversity hints at the origin of anatomically modern humans.[54][55]

Recent analysis suggests that the San may have been isolated from other original ancestral groups for as much as 100,000 years and later rejoined, re-integrating the human gene pool.[56]

A DNA study of fully sequenced genomes, published in September 2016, showed that the ancestors of today’s San hunter-gatherers began to diverge from other human populations in Africa about 200,000 years ago and were fully isolated by 100,000 years ago … [57]

So the total distance between Nigerians and Australian Aborogines is 70k years; the distance between Nigerians and Bushmen is at least 100k years.

When we zoom in on the big three–Sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians, and Asians–they clade quite easily and obviously into three races. But when we add Aborigines and Bushmen, things complicate. Should we have a “race” smaller than the average American city? Or should we just lump them in with their nearest neighbors–Bushmen with Bantus and Aborigines with Asians?

I am fine with doing both, actually–but wait, I’m not done complicating matters! Tune in on Monday for more.

Locations of the African Ethnic Groups in Haak et al’s dataset


This is the small version, which does not show all the groups. The larger version, with all the groups, is below.

Continuing my quest to produce a handy guide to the many obscure ethnic groups found in Haak et al’s dataset, here are all of the African groups I could fit on a map. Since many of these groups are extremely small and live near each other, it was impossible to fit them into their exact locations, but I hope my approximations are sufficient.

Here’s the more detailed map:


Note that there’s a ton more genetic data in the actual study; this is just a reference map. Also, “Bedouins” have an extremely broad range, from Morocco to Oman,  but I think these are the locations where these two samples were taken. Please ask if anything is unclear.

South Africa, democracy, and the dangers of demographics (part 1)

(Remember, creatives are psychotic.)
People have been bugging me to write a post on South Africa ever since I started this blog, more or less, so here you go.


I regard South Africa (SA) as one of the most misunderstood countries in the world, so I’m going to start with the history and try to clear up some potential misconceptions.

Disclaimer: I am not a South Africa scholar. This is what I’ve cobbled together by reading first and second hand accounts on the internet, Wikipedia, talking to friends who’ve lived in SA, etc. Since I’ve never been there myself, there’s always a chance that I’ve trusted the wrong people or come to some incorrect conclusions, but as always, I’ve tried to present an accurate picture.

The most common misconception I run across is that whites arrived recently in SA, conquered and oppressed the natives via apartheid and after years of righteous struggle, the native people of South Africa have finally gotten the right to vote and run their own country.


History, as usual, tells a slightly different story.

The dominant group in South Africa today is the Bantus. Nelson Mandela, for example, was a Bantu.

When the first Europeans arrived at the Cape of Good Hope (later site of Cape Town and most of the economic development of the state of South Africa,) most of the people there were Bushmen, (aka San aka KhoiSan,) who were hunter-gatherers. Not Bantus.

Southern African Rock Art

Distribution of ancient paintings and engravings attributed to the San

Modern distribution of major African language groups
Modern distribution of African languages–Bantus in orange. Note the isolated pocket of KhoiSan speakers up in Tanzania

If you believe that ancestrality determines a person’s right to a country, then the KhoiSan have a right to the Cape, and the Johnny-Come-Latey Bantus do not.

If you haven’t been reading along, you might think that the Bushmen and the Bantus are probably closely related, and that I am merely splitting hairs.

No. The Bantus are more closely related to Koreans, Australian Aborigines, and even Europeans than they are to the Bushmen.

As we’ve discussed before, the Bushmen are one of the world’s most isolated peoples, having split off from the rest of the human population, (or perhaps the rest of the humans split off from them,) 100,000 years or more ago. The Out-of-Africa event only happened 70,000 years ago, so only 70,000 years separates the Bantus from all non-Africans, but 100,000 years separate the Bantus from the San.

So. The original inhabitants of the area, who’d been there for about 100,000 years, were the San. Most of them were hunter-gatherers, which means their population density was really low; much of the area appears to have been uninhabited, given regions with names like “Nomansland”. Some of the Khoi peoples, though, had adopted animal herding.

The Bantus came originally from somewhere up near Nigeria, but by the relevant time period, occupied the north east part of South Africa, which they’d conquered from the San. (The Cape of Good Hope, where the Europeans settled, is in the south west corner. Hardly anyone has ever lived in the north west corner, because it’s desert.)

The first European in the area was Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias, (and, obviously, his crew,) way back in 1488. In 1647, the Dutch built a small fort in the area, and in 1652, the Dutch East India Company (which I wrote about recently,) set up a supply station and fortifications on the Cape. By 1659, the Dutch were producing corn, wine, and babies.

Most of the KhoiSan people were probably killed, either outright by warfare or by diseases they had no resistance to, but I have no numbers and am just speculating. There are still KhoiSan people in SA and neighboring places, so they are not all dead.

By 1800, some of the mixed-race children/descendants of the Dutch and the locals, KhoiSan, former slaves*, and the like decided they’d had enough of the Dutch and migrated northward, establishing Griqualand in an apparently uninhabited area. They migrated around a bit, and eventually Griqualand got moved to the region formerly known as Nomansland.

*The slaves were imported from elsewhere in Africa, since the Dutch considered it a bad idea to enslave the locals.

The British took possession of the Cape during the Napoleonic Wars. They promptly set about outlawing slavery and the Dutch language, so a lot of the Dutch decided to leave, too. By the 1830s, they were leaving by the hundreds, a migration known as the “Great Trek.” (There is some debate about whether outlawing slavery was actually a big deal to the Trekkers, as they tended to be the poorer folks who would have been less likely to own slaves in the first place, but I don’t know anywhere near enough history here to weigh in on the debate.)

Paths of the Great Trek
Paths of the Great Trek–note the locations of the Cape Colony in the south east, and the Zulu kingdom in the north west.

The Dutch population by this point also included a lot of Germans, French, etc., and so would be more accurately called Afrikaners.  These Trekkers, or Voortrekkers, or Boers, or Trekboers, or Afrikaners, whatever we want to call them.

These Afrikaners are an interesting people, who endured considerable hardship to go live in the middle of nowhere with nothing but what they could carry in small wagons, their family, faith, and a few guns. They trekked toward the north east, until they ran smack into the southern end of the Great Bantu Migration. The Bantus (Zulus) massacred about 500 Boers–men, women, and children–in the middle of the night. Shortly after, approximately 30,000 Zulu soldiers attacked 460 Boers, at the Battle of Blood River. This time the Boers were awake, and since they had guns and the Zulus had pointy sticks, 3,000 Zulus died and 3 Boers were injured. (December, 1836.)

Long story short, the Boers established several small, independent republics up in north east South Africa, the details of which are too complicated for our current discussion, but you may want to remember the names Orange Free State, Transvaal, and Natal.

The British-controlled Cape Colony is in blue; Boer Transvaal in Green; Boer Free Orange State in orange; Zulu state, Natal (aka Natalia,) is in red.
The British-controlled Cape Colony is in blue; Boer Transvaal in Green; Boer Free Orange State in orange; Zulu state, Natal (aka Natalia,) is in red.

In 1866, diamonds were discovered on the banks of the Orange River. The diamond-rich territory was eventually awarded to Griqualand, which was subsequently annexed by Britain in 1874. In 1886, gold was found in Transvaal. The British had tried to conquer Transvaal in 1877, but did not succeed until the Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, which ended with the annexation of both Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Boers forced to watch their home burned to the ground
Boers forced to watch their home burned to the ground

Lots of people were killed, but eventually the British got the upper hand and, having decided they were sick of the Boers, herded them into concentration camps and tried to kill them all:

“This was not the first appearance of internment camps. … But the Boer War concentration camp system was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted, and the first in which some whole regions had been depopulated.

“Eventually, there were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. Of the 28,000 Boer men captured as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. The vast majority of Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children. Over 26,000 women and children were to perish in these concentration camps.

“… 93,940 Boers and 24,457 black Africans were reported to be in “camps of refuge” and the crisis was becoming a catastrophe as the death rates appeared very high, especially among the children.

“A report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 24,074 [50 percent of the Boer child population] were children under 16) had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about one in four (25 percent) of the Boer inmates, mostly children, died.

“Improvements [however] were much slower in coming to the black camps.”[51] It is thought that about 12 percent of black African inmates died (about 14,154) but the precise number of deaths of black Africans in concentration camps is unknown as little attempt was made to keep any records of the 107,000 black Africans who were interned.” —Wikipedia

Her name was Lizzie Van Zyl.
Her name was Lizzie Van Zyl. She was 7 years old.

“[Hobhouse] describes Lizzie as “a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care”, who was placed on the lowest rations and, after a month, was moved to the new hospital about 50 kilometres (31 miles) away from the concentration camp, suffering from starvation.

According to Hobhouse, she was treated harshly in the hospital. Unable to speak English, she was labelled an “idiot” by an English-speaking doctor and her nurses, who were unable to understand her. One day she started calling for her mother; a lady went over to comfort her, but “was brusquely interrupted by one of the nurses who told her not to interfere with the child as she was a nuisance.” Lizzie died in 1901 at 7 years of age.”

As a mother, I look at Lizzie and feel like someone has torn my heart out and stomped on it.

To add insult to murder,

“The photo [of Lizzie] was used as propaganda, author Hélène Opperman Lewis states, to convince the British public that Boer children were neglected by their parents. The image was released with the detail that it was taken when van Zyl and her mother entered the camp. Chamberlain was quoted in The Times on 5 March 1902, saying that Lizzy’s mother was prosecuted for mistreatment.[4]

Hobhouse investigated the case and was unable to find any evidence of the case or prosecution of Lizzie’s mother. She located the photographer, a man named Mr. de Klerk, who confirmed that the photograph was taken two months after Lizzie arrived at the camp.[4]”

And people accuse the Afrikaners of being racist.

I count about 62,000 people dead in this war. Certainly it was no WWII, but then, South Africa didn’t have that many people to start with, so percentage wise, it’s pretty significant.

Now, I want to pause and look at some demographic issues that contributed to the Anglo-Boer War. Note that the Boers had been pretty much going along, minding their own business, running their own country, for several decades before this war started. They’d gone through quite a bit of effort to get away from the British, successfully defeated the Zulus (and other tribes,) and weren’t even the worst people in the area.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “Didn’t the Boers have slaves? Or at least Apartheid?”

I actually don’t remember if they had slaves; if they did, they are still better than the Congolese, who are not only enslaving the Pygmies right now, but also literally eat other humans. As for apartheid, do you think the Zulus were letting their conquered subjects vote? (Or live?)

For the most part, the Boers just wanted to be left the fuck alone–they didn’t conquer the Griquas, they abandoned their colony after the British took it over rather than fight for it, and I don’t think they were even messing with Natal. They just had the bad luck to have gold and diamonds, and the British decided they wanted gold and diamonds.

“In 1866 Erasmus Jacobs discovered diamonds at Kimberley, prompting a diamond rush and a massive influx of foreigners to the borders of the Orange Free State. Then in 1886, an Australian discovered gold in the Witwatersrand area of the South African Republic. Gold made the Transvaal the richest and potentially the most powerful nation in southern Africa; however, the country had neither the manpower nor the industrial base to develop the resource on its own. As a result, the Transvaal reluctantly acquiesced to the immigration of uitlanders (foreigners), mainly from Britain, who came to the Boer region in search of fortune and employment. This resulted in the number of uitlanders in the Transvaal potentially exceeding the number of Boers, and precipitated confrontations between the earlier-arrived Boer settlers and the newer, non-Boer arrivals.” —Wikipedia [Bold mine]

The British then demanded voting rights for their citizens in Transvaal, the Boers realized that they were outnumbered and that letting the Brits vote would result in their country becoming part of the British Empire and so refused, and so the war began.

Once you are a demographic minority, there is absolutely nothing to stop the majority from herding you into concentration camps and murdering you and your children, except for how much they pity you.

And nobody pities you, my friend.

At any rate, South Africa was thus forged from the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and Transvaal. (I still don’t know why Lesotho is independent. Perhaps no diamonds, or maybe just the fact that it’s on top of some mountains.) The British instituted the system of apartheid, perhaps because they felt like it, perhaps because they felt like making some concessions to the conquered Afrikaners.

SA became an independent country again in 1960. In 1966, UN resolution 2202 A (XXI) declared apartheid “A Crime Against Humanity.” (Of course, the UN also criticized the Vietnamese for kicking the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia and decided to let the deposed Khmer Rouge gov’t continue holding its seat in the UN despite being one of the most genocidal regimes the earth has ever seen, so who gives a shit what the UN thinks?)

Deaths under apartheid:

“By mid-1987 the Human Rights Commission knew of at least 140 political assassinations in the country, while about 200 people died at the hands of South African agents in neighbouring states. The exact numbers of all the victims may never be known. …

“Between 1960 and 1994, according to statistics from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Inkatha Freedom Party was responsible for 4,500 deaths, South African Police 2,700, and the ANC about 1,300.[135]” —Wikipedia

3,100+ murders attributed to the SA government, and 5,800 murders attributed to the anti-apartheid fighters.

The ANC (African National Congress,) Nelson Mandela’s party, is a communist organization that received direct funding and training by the Soviet Union. (I strongly suspect that the vast majority of anti-colonialist movements were funded by the Soviets, as colonialism has strong capitalist ties, eg, the Dutch East India Company, and so Communism morphed into an anti-colonialist ideology by the 50s or 60s.)

The ANC engaged in a brutal execution method called necklacing:

Necklacing Victim
Necklacing Victim, burned alive

“In 1986 Winnie Mandela, then-wife of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, stated “With our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country. …

The first victim of necklacing, according to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was a young girl, Maki Skosana, on 20 July 1985.[10]

Moloko said her sister was burned to death with a tire around her neck while attending the funeral of one of the youths. Her body had been scorched by fire and some broken pieces of glass had been inserted into her vagina, Moloko told the committee. Moloko added that a big rock had been thrown on her face after she had been killed.[11]” —wikipedia

As you know, nothing makes your country productive like electing communists who make their points by shoving broken glass into little girls’ vaginas.

Inkatha seems a little more into tribal pride and less communist; they’ve recently lost a bunch of parliamentary seats to the explicitly communist Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFF’s leader, Julius Malema, is a lovely person who admires Mugabe, advocates Mugabe-style seizure of mines and other economic resources in SA, and likes to lead the SA parliament in rousing choruses of “Shoot the Boer,” an old anti-apartheid war song.

You mean you can just make more of these things? Mugabe is brilliant!
You mean you can just print more of these things? Mugabe is brilliant!

SA president Jacob Zuma, a guy who gets 1.2 million pounds per year to support his four wives, is also fond “Shoot the Boer”:

“We are going to shoot them with machine guns, they are going to run… The cabinet will shoot them, with the machine gun… Shoot the Boer, we are going to hit them, they are going to run.”

Don’t worry; South Africans are very good at killing Boers, and getting better. Here’s what Genocide Watch has to say:

“Cape Town – Social media buzzed on Monday over a picture of a banner allegedly shown at the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) launch in Marikana.

A picture showing a red banner with the words “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate” was quickly shared on various social networks on Monday.

Another picture shows a banner saying “Honeymoon is over for white people in South Africa”.

“I also saw ‘we need to kill them like they killed us’ banners yesterday,” User Qaanitah Hunter said in a Tweet.”

Gulags are a feature of communism, not bugs
Gulags are a feature of communism, not bugs

From the second PDF:

“Over 3,000 white farmers have been murdered since the end of apartheid, according to Genocide Watch. Twenty years ago, there were 60,000 farmers. Today there are 30,000.

On August 8, two men were convicted of killing a 77-year-old man and his wife on their farm in Somerset. The husband was hacked to pieces. The wife was tied up, thrown in a freezer, and buried in frozen meat. She suffocated to death.

According to the police, the motivation was robbery.

On August 11, four men broke into 57-year-old Vivien Ponté’s home. She was tied to her bed, raped and lit on fire. Her house was ransacked, but it is unclear if anything was stolen.

Just another robbery gone bad.

On August 15, an 83-year-old Volksrust woman was assaulted, raped and left for dead, lying naked on the floor.

The list of “robberies” goes on. …

Beginning in 2003, the government began disbanding the rural commando units used to protect the remote farming communities that did not have police protection. The government said the commandos were unconstitutional and promised special police units to replace them. In 2008, the last commando unit was disbanded.

To this day, the special police forces still haven’t arrived.

Then in 2010, the government passed gun-control laws mandating that all guns be re-registered. In the process of registration, more than half the applicants were turned down and their weapons were seized.”

Various sources estimate the murder rate of SA farmers at about 100 per 100,000.

But you know, the Afrikaners are the racists.

Oh, let me include a bit from the Wikipedia page on Malema:

“Malema visited Zimbabwe in October 2012… “He said the youths in South Africa were calling for whites to surrender land and minerals resources they hold because when they came from Europe they did not carry any land into South Africa.”

“‘What we are asking is for them to surrender our minerals because they did not come with any minerals. We want that land and those minerals for free because they never paid for those minerals.’

“Malema told the youth he was in Zimbabwe to gain inspiration and wisdom, so that when he returned home he could “double the spirit of fighting against imperialist forces”.[77] He called on black South Africans to have as many children as possible so as to increase dominance of ‘our ideas’ in the world at large and help catalyze world revolution.[78][79]

“‘We want to see many kids, why? Because we must reproduce ourselves. For our ideas to be sustainable, we have to reproduce ourselves. In the whole of Africa, we are not more than one billion and the world has seven billion people. In Africa we have not more than one billion people… facing more than six billion. We have to be half of that so that our ideas can dominate. I know that in some instances size does not matter… but when it comes to a revolution, size matters.[79]‘” (bold mine)

Malema is descended from Bantus, so he is no more entitled to the mines than anyone else is, and certainly no one was mining those minerals before the Boers and English got there. If they were precious to Malema’s people, they would have been mining them, but they weren’t.

This is getting long, so I am going to continue with Part 2 tomorrow.

Into Africa: The Great Bantu Migration

As I’ve mentioned before, the famous Out of Africa (OoA) migration was likely preceded by an Into Africa migration, or at least, a Moving Through Africa migration.

Near as we can tell, based on the science at our disposal, H sapiens (humans, us,) evolved in Africa and then spread out from there.

But genetics (and other evidence) suggests that the oldest human split lies not between Africans and non-Africans, but between the San (aka Bushmen or KhoiSan) people of southern Africa and pretty much everyone else in the world.

But hold on. One frequently sees comments to the effect of “All modern humans descended from the San” or “The San are the most ancestral population alive today.” Bollocks. Look, you and your cousin are both descended from your grandparents. Your cousin is not ancestral to you, your grandparents are ancestral to both of you. You did not descend from the San because the San are living right now in southern Africa. They are not an ancient people known only from the architectural record, like the Yamnaya or Minoans. (Unless, of course, your parents actually are San. Then of course you are descended from the San.)

So what does this mean?

Humans–H Sapiens–arose around 200,000 years ago, somewhere or other in Africa. Around 100,000 years ago, the San split off from everyone else, and stayed isolated for almost 100,000 years.

The San look like this:

Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as "gracile," which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built
Some anthropologists refer to Bushmen as “gracile,” which means they are a little shorter than average Europeans and not stockily built

And their homeland is down in the green:

Modern distribution of major African language groups
Modern distribution of major African language groups

Their historic range was probably much larger than it currently is–note the little green dot over in Tanzania.

Here’s a different map’s opinion on the subject:


And here’s a map showing the locations of art attributed to the San / their ancestors:

Southern African Rock Art

Whether the San started in southern Africa, and everyone else left for northern Africa, leaving them behind, or the San started in northern Africa and then left for the south, leaving everyone else behind, I have no idea. Either way, one group left the other, and the split persisted, more or less, for almost a hundred thousand years.

I’ve mentioned before that the San are notably lighter-skinned than Africans from closer to the equator, like the Bantus:

Bantu mother and child
Bantu mother and child

Probably because the sun is just really harsh at the equator. You can see the current distribution of Bantus in orange on the brightly-colored map above.

Now, back to the story. Shortly after, the Pygmies split off, which I’m not going on to natter on about here because you can read the post I wrote about it. Around 70,000 years ago, some guys left Africa to explore the rest of the world. Around 40,000 years ago, some of those guys split, more or less, into Asians, Europeans, and their descendants.

Among other things, this means that the Batus are more closely related to Koreans, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans than to the KhoiSan peoples. This is because the ancestors of the Bantus and the ancestors of everyone-not-from-Africa split up around 70,000 years ago, whereas the ancestors of the Bantus and the ancestors of the KhoiSan split 100,000 years ago.

If this is confusing, think about it like this: you and your brother are closely related, because you are only one generation away from your common ancestor, your parents. (In this case, Europeans and Asians are like siblings.) You are related to your cousins, but less closely–you share half your DNA with a sibling, but only 12.5% with a cousin. You and your cousin are two generations away from your common ancestor, your grandparents. In this case, Bantus are cousins to siblings Europeans and Asians. Your second-cousins are descended from your great-grandparents. (If you have cousins, and you both have kids, those kids are second-cousins.) Second cousins share only a quarter as much DNA again–3.13%. The San are like your second-cousins. They are also second-cousins to your brother, and also second cousins to your cousins. All of the siblings are more closely related to each other than to their cousins; all of the cousins are more closely related to each other than to their second cousins; Bantus are more closely related to Koreans than to the San.

And just in case you are still confused:




If you’re still confused, here’s the Wikipedia page on kinship coefficients.

Please note that this is all a massive, massive over-simplification–obviously there are lots of groups in Africa other than the Bantus and the San–like the Yoruba. But “everyone in Africa other than the San and the Pygmies and people who’ve had Arab and other admixture” gets really clunky.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that the green and orange regions on the map above look awfully close together. How have the San been so isolated for so long if they’re living right next to the Bantus?

About 3,500 years ago–96,500 after they split–the Bantus did this:

Paths of the great Bantu Migration
Paths of the great Bantu Migration

1 = 2000–1500 BC origin 2 = ca.1500 BC first migrations      2.a = Eastern Bantu,   2.b = Western Bantu 3 = 1000–500 BC Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu 47 = southward advance 9 = 500 BC–0 Congo nucleus 10 = 0–1000 AD last phase (from Wikipedia)

The Great Bantu Migration.

Why? I don’t know.

With their larger builds, superior weapons, and more complex social systems, the Bantus appear to have dominated the shit out of everyone they met, until they massacred the wrong guys:

Battle of Blood River
Battle of Blood River

Yes, they ran right into the Afrikaneer (Dutch) Boers, trekking northward from Cape Town, South Africa. And the Boers had guns.

Never bring a spear to a gun fight.

In the end, though, the Bantus won. They have the overwhelming numbers, after all.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

The San are still around, but their territory has dwindled severely; some managed to survive in the Kalahari desert, a place just too harsh for anyone else, but even this has not protected them, as farmers and ranchers have moved in and they’ve been forced into more sedentary lifestyles.

I’ve mentioned The Harmless People before; it’s an ethnography of the Bushmen. It has the whole, “primitive people have so much less crime than we do” thing going on, (hence the title,) but it’s still an interesting account of a quickly-disappearing lifestyle.

The book’s epilogue describes efforts to force the Bushmen onto reservations, where they have been encouraged to take up farming and herding. The account is depressing; the Bushmen seem to have been perfectly happy with their lives before, and ill-suited to agricultural toil. Alcoholism is rampant, as it is among everyone whose ancestors haven’t been distilling alcohol for thousands of years, and violent crime appears to be taking more lives.

Whether the San will continue existing or be completely absorbed by the unstoppable Bantu migration remains to be seen.


Pygmies: Among the world’s most isolated peoples, or archaic hominin admixture?

Pygmies are interesting because:

1. They’re the world’s shortest peoples

2. They’re rainforest hunter-gatherers

3. They appear to have split off from the rest of humanity and have been relatively isolated for longer than almost anyone else on Earth.

4. They’re getting wiped out by their neighbors, so we’d better learn about them now.

First, Who are the Pygmies?

“Pygmy” does not refer (as far as we know) to one specific ethnic group, but to the members of any ethnic group in which adult men are, on average, 4’11” or shorter. In practice, people tend to only use the word Pygmy to refer to certain African groups; there are short-statured groups found outside of Africa, but we’ll discuss them in another post.

The principle African Pygmies are the Aka, Baka, Mbuti, and Twa. (Some countries and groups use different name; I am not an expert on Pygmies, so I’m sure there is much I’ve missed.) The Mbuti are probably the shortest, with an average height under 4’6″. There are about 250,000 to 600,000 Pygmies, scattered about the Congo rainforest:

Locations of some Pygmy groups
Locations of some Pygmy groups

We’ve known for a while that the Pygmies–especially the Mbuti Pygmies–and their more southerly neighbors, the San, appear to be the most genetically divergent people on Earth:

Average age of SNPs in different populations, from West Hunter
Average age of SNPs in different populations, from West Hunter

You might have to squint, but the Pygmies and San are on the far right.

In normal English, what does this mean? Here is my understanding:

There are parts of your (our) genome where random mutations won’t generally kill you. Random mutations tend, therefore, to accumulate there. Since have some pretty decent estimates for how often random mutations occur, comparing the mutations in two different populations lets us estimate how long ago they split. For example, let’s suppose you get one random mutation per hundred years, and we’re comparing two populations that split 300 years ago and haven’t seen each other since. Population A should have gotten 3 mutations during that 300 years, and Population B should have gotten 3 mutations. So if we look at a third population, C, and find that they have 5 mutations that they don’t share with A or B, then we conclude that C split off from some ancestral population 500 years ago. We can reconstruct this as: 600 years ago, there was a group called ABC, but 500 years ago, it split into Group AB and Group C. 300 years ago, Group AB split into Group A and Group B.

Anatomically Modern Humans (that is, Homo Sapiens Sapiens,) according to our best estimates, emerged around 200,000 years ago in central Africa. We’re used to talking about the Out of Africa event, when humans started wandering around the rest of the globe, but it looks like the first major migration event might have been toward the south:

Map of early diversification of modern humans according to mitochondrial population genetics
Map of early diversification of modern humans according to mitochondrial population genetics, from Wikipedia

Those guys who went south (Pygmies, Bushmen aka San,) look like they’ve been isolated down there for an awfully long time–much longer than, say, the Australian Aborigines, who got to Australia about 50,000 years ago.

A recent paper by PingHsun Hsieh et al, “Whole genome sequence analyses of Western Central African Pygmy hunter-gatherers reveal a complex demographic history and identify candidate genes under positive natural selection,” describes the results of sequencing 4 Biaka Pygmy genomes and comparing them to 3 Baka Pygmy and 9 Yoruba genomes. (The Yoruba are farmers.)

“Our two best-fit models both suggest ancient divergence between the ancestors of the farmers and Pygmies, 90,000 or 150,000 years ago. We also find that bi-directional asymmetric gene-flow is statistically better supported than a single pulse of unidirectional gene flow from farmers to Pygmies, as previously suggested.”

That’s a long time ago!

(“Bi-directional asymmetric gene-flow” means that they have occasionally inter-married, but not equal numbers of men and women.)

BUT, and this is where I get speculative and may be saying things that a real scientist would tell me are just dumb, what if the Pygmies (and San) actually split off more recently, and just picked up some archaic hominin DNA on their way south?

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Everyone outside of Sub-Sharan Africa seems to have some Neanderthal DNA, picked up around the time their ancestors left Africa (Northern Africa has had a lot of mixing with non-African populations over the years, so I assume North Africans have Neanderthal DNA, too.) Melanesians (eg, guys from Papua New Guinea and a bunch of tiny Pacific Islands,) and Australian Aborigines are about 4%-6% Denisovan, but it looks like no one else is. Wikipedia article on archaic admixture.

Less is known about potential hominin admixture in Sub-Saharan populations. This may just be because we’ve sequenced far more European genomes and all sorts of remains tend to rot really quickly in the rainforest, making it hard to uncover any archaic DNA to compare modern humans to. However, I can’t help but think that few scientists wanted to be the guy who announced archaic hominin admixture in Sub-Saharan Africans before it was announced in Europeans. That seems like the kind of finding that could quickly get your department defunded, not to mention a lot of people mad at you and a ton of nonsense on the internet.

But with archaic admixture showing up all over the place, no one need worry about the political implications anymore, and science can get on with its business.

So, anyway, what if, on their way into the rainforest, the Pygmies’ ancestors encountered–and bred with–some other group of archaic hominins? (No, not chimps or gorillas–they have a different number of chromosomes than we do, so you couldn’t get viable offspring with them, similar to how mules are infertile.) They would have been more like Neandearthals, though obviously probably shorter.

It seems to me that a more recent divergence from other human groups + archaic admixture could result in a similar number of different genetic mutations as a much more ancient divergence + no admixture.

It also seems like you could have a third scenario: Pygmies (and San) have experienced recent selective pressure on parts of their genomes that no one else has. Maybe the parts of the genome that for everyone else have been just been accumulating random mutations have been important for the recent evolution of the San and Pygmy peoples, and so they’ve been accumulating changes faster than everyone else.


At any rate, the Pygmies are still genetically unique among humans.

Unfortunately, the Pygmies are not doing so well. The Batwa got kicked out of their homes in order to make a gorilla reserve. As hunter gatherers with no title deeds to the land they lived on, the government (Uganda) didn’t bother to give them new land or homes. In other words, the Batwa Pygmies were treated worse than the gorillas. (Today, some NGOs have helped the Batwa get new land and set them up as a living ethno-theme park for tourists, which I guess isn’t the worst fate in the world.)

The Bantus (who, despite living in Africa, are probably more closely related to Koreans than Pygmies,) use the Pygmies as slaves.

The Congolese (Democratic Republic of the Congo) have been literally eating the Pygmies, especially the Mbuti Pygmies, whom they regard as sub-human. Astoundingly, one of the reasons cited for genocidal cannibalism is that they want to open up Pygmy lands for mineral exploitation.

70,000 Pygmies have been killed in the civil wars in the DRC and Rwanda.

While I caution against idolizing the Pygmy villages as non-violent Edens (I have no idea what their violence rates are, but past experience suggests that it’s probably actually pretty high,) at least they aren’t cannibals. The Pygmies are smaller than everyone else and have only stone-age technology, so they tend to get defeated easily.

Pretty soon, there might not be any Pygmies left to talk about.

Some photos:

Pygmy village
Pygmy village


Women of the Batwa Pygmies
Women of the Batwa Pygmies


Batwa Pygmies
Batwa Pygmies singing and dancing