A Shared Past for East Africa’s Hunter-Gatherers

A recently published genomic analysis suggests African hunting and gathering groups diverged from a common ancestry and underscores the role of infectious disease and diet as drivers of local adaptation.

The Leakey Foundation supported study examined genetic data from 50 distinct African populations, including many who practice hunter-gatherer lifestyles, such as the (clockwise from upper left) Sabue, San, Hadza, and Sandawe. The team found that some of these hunting and gathering groups share a common ancestry, and also underscored the important role of diet and disease as drivers of local adaptation around the continent. Photos: Tishkoff Lab

Languages that involve “clicks” are relatively rare worldwide but are spoken by several groups in Africa. The Khoisan language family includes a handful of these click languages, spoken by hunter-gatherer groups in southern and eastern Africa. But the grouping of these populations into a single language family has been controversial, with some linguists convinced that a few of the languages are too different to be classified together.

A genomic study of 50 African populations, funded in part by The Leakey Foundation, adds some clarity to the relationships between these click-speaking groups and many others. The results point to a relatively recent shared ancestry for a few of the click-speaking hunter-gatherer populations, indicating they are more closely related to one another than to their neighbors that practice other subsistence lifestyles, such as farming or animal herding.

The analysis, one of the most extensive of its kind of ethnically diverse populations in Africa, also demonstrates the importance of infectious disease, immunity, and diet in shaping the diversity of populations across Africa. The work is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s very rare to have a study of this many groups that are genetically different in terms of ancestry, in their subsistence patterns, and are geographically dispersed as well,” says Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, who was the senior author on the paper. “This allows us to characterize population structure and demographic history as well as to look at signatures of natural selection acting on these populations.”

The analysis builds upon decades of work by the Tishkoff lab and African collaborators to explore African genetic diversity. The research, says Tishkoff, facilitates genomics research overall by examining populations that have been otherwise understudied, and it can play a role in identifying genetic variants that influence health and disease in Africa and around the world.

With the help of a local translator, Simon Thompson from Sarah Tishkoff’s lab (University of Pennsylvania) and Dawit Wolde-Meskel (collaborator from Addis Ababa University) explain the research project on African population genetics to the Argobba population, Ethiopia. After the project is presented, the researchers answer any questions. Photo: Tishkoff Lab

This study probes deeply into the genomic landscape of 840 Africans, identifying 621,000 separate nucleotides in the DNA of each participant.

The 50 groups surveyed are spread across sub-Saharan Africa and include almost all groups that currently practice a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, or have until recently.

Tishkoff, Scheinfeldt, and colleagues were particularly interested in what these study participants’ genomes would reveal about ancient relationships among hunter-gatherer populations, particularly those speaking languages that had been classified as Khoisan. East Africa’s Hadza and Sandawe hunter-gatherers had been labeled Khoisan by some linguistic analyses, grouped with southern Africa’s San hunter-gatherers.

“Some linguists say it’s not correct to place all of these into the Khoisan family, arguing that the Hadza and Sandawe languages are so different from each other and from the San that they really should be in separate language classifications,” says Tishkoff.

The researchers also included study participants from the Dahalo of Ethiopia, who have never been studied genetically but speak a language with remnant clicks. “It’s an ongoing question in linguistics and genetics,” Tishkoff says, “and we wanted to ask the question, ‘Do these groups with click phonemes have a common genetic ancestry?'”

They were also curious to know whether a shared subsistence lifestyle practice–that of hunting and gathering–indicated a shared ancestry. Among the 16 hunter-gatherer populations they studied was a group called the Sabue who live in southwestern Ethiopia. The Sabue had never before participated in genomic research and speak a language that is thus far unclassified.

Using the genetic information they obtained to map out the populations’ likely relationships to one another, the researchers unexpectedly found that four hunter-gatherer populations–the Hadza, Sandawe, Dahalo, and Sabue, each of whom live in distinct areas of eastern Africa–clustered together.

“Typically what we see is that populations cluster by geography, but here we’re seeing an exception to that,” Tishkoff says. “Here you have three groups that either speak a click language, have remnant clicks, or have an unclassified language, and they’re showing a common ancestry even though they’re spread across different countries.”

Although the researchers could not identify a uniquely shared ancestry between these four groups of eastern African Khoisan hunter-gatherers and the southern African San people, who also speak a language with clicks, they did observe shared ancestry between the San and rainforest hunter-gatherers from Central Africa, despite being geographically far apart.

In contrast, other hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Wata, El Molo, and Yaaku, appeared more genetically similar to neighboring agriculturalist and pastoralist groups.

The common ancestry for the four East Africa hunter-gatherer groups dates back more than 20,000 years ago, according to the team’s analysis, around the beginning of the last glacial maximum, when ice covered extensive portions of Earth and the climate was much different than it is today.

“The idea is that this may have changed environmental conditions and introduced a barrier between populations,” says Laura Scheinfeldt, the lead author who was a research associate in Tishkoff’s lab, and is now with the Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

The researchers’ techniques also allowed for a better understanding of the forces that have acted to differentiate the groups they studied.

“What we found was the strongest signatures of adaptation tended to be population-specific,” says Scheinfeldt. In other words, targets of natural selection were different in the different groups and may well have contributed to the uniqueness of each.

Despite these individual differences, the categories of the genes that were selected were shared among populations, the researchers discovered.

“Genes involved in immune responses, diet, and metabolism were the broad categories that we saw coming up over and over again,” Scheinfeldt notes. “We know infectious disease, in general, is a very strong pressure, and, when you look solely at how prevalent malaria is, that also explains some of the patterns we see in adaptive signatures. Just that one disease is a very strong selective pressure.”

In future studies, Tishkoff and colleagues will be zooming in to see how particular genetic variants may affect physical traits in the people who possess them, studies that could shed light on genetic causes of disease susceptibility. They’ll also be using powerful whole-genome sequencing techniques to further illuminate the relationships among Africa’s diverse populations.

Tishkoff and Scheinfeldt’s coauthors on the study were Penn’s Sameer Soi, Charla Lambert, Wen-Ya Ko, Aoua Coulibaly, Alessia Ranciaro, Simon Thompson, Jibril Hirbo, William Beggs, and Junhyong Kim; the University of Khartoum’s Muntaser Ibrahim; St. Joseph University College of Health Sciences’ Thomas Nyambo; the Kenya Medical Research Institute’s Sabah Omar; Addis Ababa University’s Dawit Woldemeskel and Gurja Belay; and the Musée de l’Homme’s Alain Froment.

The research was supported by The Leakey Foundation, the Lewis and Clark Fund, University of Pennsylvania, National Institutes of Health (grants AI007532, ES022577, DK104339, and ES019851), and National Science Foundation (Grant 1540432).

This story first appeared on the Penn Today news site. Read the original here.

Leakey Foundation Grantee Featured in New PBS and Smithsonian Channel Film

Five-time Leakey Foundation grantee Ellen Miller in the field in Buluk, Kenya. Image courtesy of Twin Cities PBS.

In the new film “When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time,” Leakey Foundation grantee and Wake Forest University anthropology professor Ellen Miller stands on a rocky hillside in northern Kenya carefully uncovering 16 million-year-old fossil elephant teeth.

Miller is among several scientists from around the world featured in the two-hour film, created in a first-ever partnership between PBS and Smithsonian Channel. Using innovative storytelling techniques including 3D graphics and CGI, the film traces the evolutionary origins of crocodiles, birds, whales, and elephants.

Narrated by actor Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit, Captain Marvel), the film premieres Wednesday, June 19 at 9 pm (check local listings) on both PBS and Smithsonian Channel and will also be available for simultaneous streaming on PBS.org.

Found in the Turkana Basin, fossils of Deinotheres reveal a primitive elephant, estimated to be 1/3 the size of a modern-day elephant. Image courtesy of Twin Cities PBS.

Unlocking the secrets of elephant evolution

Referred to as “a sort of Jurassic Park of elephants” in the film, the Turkana Basin field site at Buluk, Kenya, is close to the Ethiopian border and among the hottest, driest places on earth. When Miller discovered prehistoric elephant teeth and jawbones at the site, she contacted her friend and colleague William Sanders, an elephant evolution specialist from the University of Michigan, who is also featured in the film. In a space less than half the size of a football field, Miller and her colleagues found fossils from at least five different ancient elephant species.

“Something about how our site was formed has captured more diversity than other places,” Miller said. “Sixteen million years ago, this would have been a woodland with big rivers running through it, and a whole host of different kinds of elephants lived here. One species would have been less than half the size of a modern elephant and would have been snuffling along the riverbank because it liked a wet and closed environment.”

Miller described other species found at the site: “We also have the remains of elephants nicknamed “shovel tuskers” because the ends of their tusks were broad and flat, like shovels, and the wear patterns on the tusks tells us they were using them like scoops. Another big surprise was a new member of the family that later gives rise to mammoths.”

Found in the Turkana Basin, the fossils of Amelbelodon reveal an ancestor of modern-day elephants, who used their shovel-shaped tusks to scoop up their food. Image courtesy of Twin Cities PBS.

“This kind of evolutionary diversity all in one place is breathtaking.”

– Ellen Miller, Leakey Foundation grantee, Wake Forest University

As a paleoanthropologist and field researcher, Miller has spent decades studying the fossil evidence for primate and human evolution. Her work includes heading expeditions to the Turkana Basin in search of Miocene fossil animals. Her research contributes to the understanding of the divergence of monkeys and apes and the evolution of modern African mammals. Miller recently worked with an international team of researchers who discovered a 13 million-year-old fossil ape skull that sheds light on ape ancestry (Nature, 2017), and the most primitive known monkey (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019). She was also part of the team that discovered a 19-million-year-old swamp-dwelling creature with large, sensitive lips that she named after Mick Jagger, the front man for the Rolling Stones.

A professor of anthropology at Wake Forest and a member of the Turkana Basin Institute, she is a five-time Leakey Foundation grant recipient whose work is supported by The Leakey Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society.

Miller teaches courses at Wake Forest on human evolution, human biological diversity and biological anthropology.

Click here to watch a preview about the evolution of elephants from “When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time.”

“When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time” is a major initiative in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which opened the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils – Deep Time on June 8. The project features an extensive educational outreach program produced by the National Museum of Natural History and shared with affiliated science museums around the country. Major funding for “When Whales Walked” is provided by The National Science Foundation and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. The film was produced by Twin Cities PBS and Shining Red Productions for PBS and Smithsonian Channel.

This story first appeared on the Wake Forest University news site. Read the original here.


Introducing Our 2019 Baldwin Fellows

The Leakey Foundation is proud to announce the recipients of the 2019 Franklin Mosher Baldwin Memorial Fellowships and the Baldwin Fellowship Funded by the National Geographic Society.

Franklin Mosher Baldwin Memorial Fellowships are awarded to graduate students from countries where there are limited opportunities for advanced training and education in fields of research related to the study of human origins.

Many countries possess extraordinary resources in the field of prehistory but lack educational opportunities in the field of human origins research. By enabling bright young scholars to obtain graduate education, The Leakey Foundation is helping to equip these individuals to assume a leadership role in the future of paleoanthropology and primatology.

The Baldwin Fellowship program was established in 1978, and since then, many Baldwin Fellows such as Zeresenay Alemseged, Berhane Asfew, Job Kibii, Mzalendo Kibunjia, Jackson Njau, Agazi Negash, Emma Mbua, and Fredrick Manthi (to name only a few) have gone on to have productive and distinguished careers.

Returning 2019 Baldwin Fellows:

Rosemary Anne Blersch is crouched in a shrub conducting a behavioral focal sample on an adult vervet monkey resting with others in the semi-arid karoo in South Africa.

Rosemary Ann Blersch (South Africa)

Ms. Blersch has completed 2 years of her PhD at the University of Lethbridge, Canada where she is studying animal behavior and evolution. She is looking at the relationship between primate health and sociality in vervet monkeys in the context of severe environmental stressors. Upon completion of her degree, she plans to return to her home country to establish biological anthropology as an academic discipline and to provide opportunities for South African students to work in this field.


Elihuruma Wilson Kimaro (Tanzania)

Mr. Kimaro is a second-year student in the PhD program at University of Minnesota. He is studying interactions between chimpanzees and humans on multiple spatial scales, from the local scale of interactions with researchers and tourists inside the park, to the landscape scale of the village forest reserves.

In the summer of 2018, Mr. Kimaro conducted pilot research at Gombe National Park, Tanzania, observing the behavior of chimpanzees and the people following them, including researchers and tourists. He is currently working to analyze results from this study. After obtaining his doctoral degree, he intends to return to Tanzania to work as a conservationist with the Tanzanian National Parks Authority.


Ipyana Francis Mwakyoma (Tanzania)

Mr. Mwakyoma is in his second year in the master’s degree program at Colorado State University. He is studying early hominin subsistence strategies by using quantitative 3D methods to analyze bone surface modifications on the fossils from the FLK Zinjanthropus level in Olduvai Gorge. After completing his PhD, he plans to return to Tanzania to work at The Mirror International Research Institute as a paleoanthropology researcher and to teach paleosciences at the University of Dar es Salaam.


Sharmi Sen is conducting fieldwork in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia where she is studying the gelada monkeys.

Sharmi Sen (India)

Ms. Sen is in her second year of the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is conducting her dissertation fieldwork at the Gelada Research Project in Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia for her project to ascertain which factors contribute to variation in leader males’ reproductive success. After obtaining her doctoral degree, she intends to return to research Indian primates and to teach.


New 2019 Baldwin Fellows:

Abigail Asangba in the lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Abigail Asangba (Ghana)

Ms. Asangba is a PhD candidate studying microbial ecology in primates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ms. Asangba’s research focuses on host-microbe interactions in primates. She is interested in better understanding the factors that shape a healthy primate microbiome as well as the role of the microbiome in primate health, evolution behavior and conservation. Her goal is to become a university professor in Ghana with a research focus on the role of the primate microbiome in reproductive health.


Niguss Baraki at Ledi-Geraru, Afar, Ethiopia, heading out to set up a total station for excavation.

Niguss Baraki (Ethiopia)

Mr. Baraki is a PhD candidate in the paleoanthropology program at George Washington University. He is studying the record of stone artifacts and hominin fossils to elucidate how our ancestors made and used stone artifacts. His particular interests include examining the relationship between human behavior, anatomical development (explicitly human hand morphology), and the influence of cultural innovation over time on the evolution of human adaptive changes.

He is currently a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management at Addis Ababa University. Upon completion of his PhD, he intends to return there to train students to participate in research both in the field and in the laboratory. His advisor David Braun said, “I have no doubt that Mr. Baraki will be a major figure in the study of human evolution within the coming years.”


The focus of Mariam Bundala’s research is to understand how environmental change in East Africa has impacted human evolution during the Middle Pleistocene. She is shown here holding a bag of material from the Manyara Beds in Northern Tanzania.

Mariam Bundala (Tanzania)

Ms. Bundala is a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary. She is studying landscape use and how environmental change has impacted human evolution. For her PhD project, she is analyzing phytoliths from the Manyara Beds in Tanzania which are among the most important Middle Pleistocene sequences in East Africa. Her research could significantly contribute to our knowledge on the appearance of archaic Homo sapiens and the disappearance of the Acheulean Industry in Africa.

She is currently an assistant lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. After earning her doctorate, she intends to return there as a lecturer and senior researcher where she would be the only woman on the academic staff.


Amy Hatton excavating at Duynefontein, a Mid-Late Pleistocene site on the west coast of South Africa.

Amy Hatton (South Africa)

Ms. Hatton is pursuing a master’s degree in computational archaeology at University College London which will equip her with skills that are currently not available from South African universities. She intends to continue in the PhD program where she will apply computational methods to studying stone tools. She has already gained experience in archaeology by participating in four excavations across South Africa; working at the open-air Stone Age sites of Amanzi Springs and Duynefontein, as well as rock shelter/cave sites at Ga-Mohana Hill and Wonderwerk Cave. She intends to return to South Africa to conduct research and to teach.


Husna Mashaka conducting field research as part of her study of human behavioral variability in relation to climate and vegetation change in the Holocene period at the Kisese II rockshelter in Kondoa, Tanzania.

Husna Mashaka (Tanzania)

Ms. Mashaka is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Her area of interest is phytolith analysis. While a student at the Koobi Fora Field School, she examined how accurately phytoliths can document the changes in vegetation cover in East Turkana during the Holocene. For her master’s thesis, she plans to reconstruct the paleoevironment of the Kisese II landscapes at Kondoa, Tanzania, by using proxy data from phytoliths. Her ultimate goal is to earn her PhD. She intends to return to Tanzania to pursue a career in archaeological research and cultural heritage management.

Nadia Saidani sorting fossil microfaunal bones from the Tighennif (Formerly Ternifine, Algeria) hominin site, under the binocular microscope.

Nadia Saidani (Algeria)

Ms. Saidani has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Algiers (Algeria) in archaeology with a specialization in Prehistoric studies and a master’s degree in quaternary geology and prehistory from the University Rovira I Virgili (Spain). She is currently a PhD candidate at the University Rovira studying micropaleontology. She has fieldwork experience in Algeria, participating in excavations at the Oldowan sites of Ain Boucherit and Ain Hanech, and the Acheulean site of Tighennif under the supervision of Professor Mohamed Sahnouni. She intends to gain scientific expertise in microvertebrate paleontology and to fill a gap in microfaunal studies in Algeria.


Michaela Tizazu with a field research assistant named Hussen. This photo was taken while conducting a paleoanthropological survey at the Mile Logia project in Afar, Ethiopia where she has been working for the past two years. The project was organized by Dr. Zeresenay Alemseged.

Michaela Zewdu Tizazu (Ethiopia)

Ms. Tizazu is a PhD student in the archaeology program at the University of Florida. She has participated in an archeological field project organized by Dr. Erella Hovers from the Hebrew University at the Early Stone Age site of Melka Wakena. She investigated the archeological record of Middle and Late Pleistocene phases in Africa. Her research goals are to elucidate the role lithic technologies play in understanding aspects of human behavior such as landscape use, social organization, economic strategies, and interactions among groups within the environment. She intends to return to Ethiopia to teach archaeology and cultural heritage management at the University level.


Peiqi Zhang participating in an excavation on the Tibetan Plateau in China.

Peiqi Zhang (China)

Ms. Zhang is a second-year PhD student in paleoanthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her home institute is the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where she obtained a master’s degree of paleontology and stratigraphy. She is particularly interested in the issue of modern human dispersal between North Asia and North China, and the early human settlements on the Tibetan Plateau. She hopes to address long-standing scientific questions regarding modern humans in north China and the subsequent adaptation to high-altitude environments. As much research is written only in Chinese, she recognizes that language barriers constitute a serious obstacle to the circulation of data and ideas. She would like to contribute to increased collaborations between Chinese and English-speaking researchers.

Leakey Foundation Baldwin Fellows Funded by the National Geographic Society

Deepak Choudhary taking GPS location and geological data at Ramnagar, a hominid locality in Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir in India.

Deepak Choudhary (India)

Mr. Choudhary has a master’s degree in earth and geological sciences from the University of Punjab and is now pursuing his PhD at the City University of New York. His studies are focused on primate paleontology and evolution. During his time in New York, he has access to collections at the American Museum of Natural History where he hopes to expand his ability to identify Miocene mammalian fauna. After obtaining his PhD, he plans to continue in academia in India. This fellowship was funded in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Introducing Our Spring 2019 Grantees

On May 4, 2019, The Leakey Foundation’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved 35 grant proposals for funding. We are proud to introduce our spring 2019 research grant recipients, and we look forward to sharing news and information about them and their research.

Here are some numbers from our spring 2019 granting cycle:

  • There were 116 applications for research grants
  • 38% were for behavioral research projects
  • 62% were for paleoanthropology research projects.
  • 469 reviews were submitted to our grants department.

Thank you to our reviewers! We could not do it without you.


William L. Allen, Swansea University:  Character displacement of face appearance in primate evolution

Sofia Carrera in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia getting ready to collect behavioral data.

Sofia Carrera, University of Michigan:  Early-life adversity: Maternal effects in a wild primate

Natasha Coutts conducting research at the Cyamudongo chimpanzee community in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda.

Natasha Jane Coutts, The University of Western Australia:  Socioecology and the gut microbiome of eastern chimpanzees in Rwanda

Steve Lansing with Ogot, Marnyi, and Sandi of the Cave Punan in Indonesian Borneo.

John Stephen Lansing, Santa Fe Institute:  Pilot study of Cave Punan hunter-gatherers of Borneo

Kevin Lee, Arizona State University:  Do female chimpanzees at Ngogo form social bonds, and why?

Emily Levy with her photogrammetry gear, with baboons and Kilimanjaro in the background. Photo by Dr. Catherine Markham.

Emily J. Levy, Duke University:  Early adversity, body size, and immune function in wild baboons

Sheina Lew-Levy is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University. With Annemieke Milks (archaeology–University College London), her project will examine how spear hunting knowledge is acquired by BaYaka adolescents. This project builds upon her doctoral research on learning through play, participation, and teaching among Hadza and BaYaka hunter-gatherers.

Sheina Lew-Levy, Simon Fraser University:  Hand-thrown spears: Ballistics, accuracy and learning to hunt among BaYaka Congo Basin foragers

Jayashree Mazumder following a trail to track a gibbon group at the Hoolongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam, India.

Jayashree Mazumder, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research:  Exploring tool-use by long-tailed macaques in the Nicobar Islands, India and associated factors

Dr. Arijit Pal is studying tool-aided extractive foraging behavior in an elusive Nicobar long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis umbrosus) in Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago, India.

Arijit Pal, University of Lethbridge:  Affordance learning: From object play to tool use?

Deep in the heart of the Likouala region of the Republic of the Congo, Dr. Sarah Pope sits in a tree overlooking a Bayaka forest camp during caterpillar season.

Sarah Michelle Pope, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology:  The impact of resource predictability on variation in cognitive flexibility

Gabriele Schino and Elsa Addessi with a female capuchin monkey named Quincy.

Gabriele Schino, Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche:  Testing the cognitive components of primate cooperation

Christopher A Schmitt, Boston University:  Modeling the evolution of obesity: Gene expression, dought, and anthropogenic stress in wild vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus)

Andrew Zamora (r) in the field in Tsingy de Beanka Reserve located in central western Madagascar. On the left is Charles Rasolondravoavy, a recent Malagasy masters graduate who collaborated with Zamora during his field studies. In the middle is a local guide named Delegue who also works as a ranger for Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar (BCM), the managing authority for Beanka.

Andrew John Zamora, University of Massachusetts Amherst:  Socio-genomic evolution of Sifakas (Propithecus)


Daniel S. Adler on survey near Aparan, Armenia, 2017.

Daniel Adler, University of Connecticut:  The Early Pleistocene settlement of Northern Armenia

Andrew Best in the lab preparing for a data collection. He stimulates sweating in volunteers using pilocarpine iontophoresis, and then makes impressions of the sweating skin to count active sweat glands. He is testing whether early childhood climate is correlated with sweat gland density.

Andrew William Best, University of Massachusetts Amherst:  Diversity and evolution of human eccrine sweat glands

Hervé Bocherens in the “Centro de interpretación primeros pobladores de Europa Josep Gibert” in Orce (Andalusia, Spain).

Hervé Bocherens, University of Tübingen:  Environment of early hominins outside Africa: The Guadix-Baza Basin

Dr. Emanuele Cancellieri of the Department of Ancient World Studies (Sapienza University of Rome) collecting samples during field research in southern Tunisia.

Emanuele Cancellieri, Università di Roma:  Archaeology, chronology, and environment of northern Sahara early Middle Stone Age

Mark Conaway, University at Buffalo – SUNY:  Hominoid postcranial integration in relation to function and evolutionary history

Dr. Darren Curnoe examines a human tooth excavated from 55,000-year-old sediments at the Trader’s Cave, Niah National Park, Borneo. Photo by Brendan Daniel, 2019.

Darren Curnoe, The University of New South Wales:  Tracing the earliest modern humans in island Southeast Asia

Kimberly Foecke (left) with her undergraduate mentee Druonna Collier (right) assessing the growth progress of an experimental set of plants that Neanderthals may have eaten.

Kimberly Foecke, George Washington University:  Neanderthal diet: Effects of food selection and processing on δ15N

Dr. Irene Gallego Romero is being supported by the Leakey Foundation to use high-throughput cellular and genetic screens to understand the contributions of Denisovan DNA to modern humans in Papua New Guinea.

Irene Gallego Romero, The University of Melbourne:  Functional evaluation of archaic Denisovan variants in Island Southeast Asia

Daniel García Martínez studying the original thoracic remains of Homo naledi for its publication, at the University of Witwatersrand in May 2014.

Daniel Garcia-Martinez, Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana:  Covariation of internal and external costal anatomy and its importance for understanding the evolution of the human thorax

Deanna Goldstein at a field site in Fruita, Colorado, where she was working to excavate Late Jurassic mammals from the Morrison Formation.

Deanna Murphy Goldstein, Johns Hopkins University:  Carpal allometry among African apes and other mammals

Lauren Gonzales working with members of a field crew in southern Peru to scout for fossils by boat along the Amazon River.

Lauren Gonzales, University of South Carolina:  Reconstructing the paleoecology of the middle Miocene (>14.7 Mya) site of Maboko Island, western Kenya

Terry Harrison, New York University:  Paleoanthropological research in the Lower Laetolil Beds, Tanzania

Erella Hovers  (below) taking photos during excavations at the MW 5 Acheulian locality (Melka Wakena site complex in the central highlands of Ethiopia).

Erella Hovers, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem:  Giant core workshops at the Acheulian site of Melka Wakena, Ethiopia

Richard F. Kay, Duke University:  Recovering Paleogene and early Neogene Primates from Tropical South America

Clare Kimock studying rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico.

Clare Kimock, New York University:  Rhesus macaque canine dimorphism in evolutionary context

Jonathan Paige excavating the el-Hemmeh site in the Wadi Hasa of Jordan.

Jonathan N. Paige, Arizona State University:  Estimating the reliability of stone tools in reconstructing cultural relationships in prehistory

Justin Pargeter taking strontium isotope samples from modern vegetation and soils for paleo vegetation and mammalian grazing and mobility studies in Pondoland, South Africa.

Justin Pargeter, New York University:  The archaeological sequence at Boomplaas Cave, South Africa: New light on human adaptations to rapid climate change across the late Pleistocene

Ismael Sánchez-Morales (left) and colleague archaeologist Carlos Hernández-Jaimes preparing a gomphothere mandibule for extraction at El Fin del Mundo Clovis killsite in Sonora, Mexico.

Ismael Sánchez Morales, University of Arizona:   Aterian lithic technological variability: Implications for MSA land-use in Morocco

Chalachew Seyoum at the National Museums of Kenya where he was collecting data for his Leakey Foundation supported dissertation research in 2018.

Chalachew Seyoum, Arizona State University:  Collection and preparation of modern gelada monkey remains from Guassa Community Conservation Area and Simien Mountain National Park, Ethiopia

Irene Smail collecting fossils while on survey at the Ledi-Geraru field site in Ethiopia. Ellis Locke, a fellow graduate student can be seen in the background. Photo by Eric Scott.

Irene SmailArizona State University:  Community ecology of living and fossil cercopithecid primates

Elizabeth Werren in the Bielas lab for Neurogenetics at the University of Michigan. She is in the tissue culture hood changing media on cerebral brain organoids (‘mini-brains’) derived from human embryonic stem cells.

Elizabeth Werren, University of Michigan:  Human-specific gene expansion during human brain evolution

Yossi Zaidner at the Tinshemet Cave excavation in August 2017.

Yossi Zaidner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem:  New Middle Paleolithic human fossils from the Levant: Excavations at Tinshemet Cave, Israel

From the Field: Brenna Henn, South Africa

Brenna Henn is an associate professor at the University of California, Davis. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant in our fall 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Testing for ancient population structure in southern Africa via extensive DNA collection.”

Checking a saliva collection tube for DNA sampling in the Cederberg Mountains (SUNY Stony Brook team member from the Henn Lab: Justin Myrick ). Photo credit: photo is the copyright of National Geographic Magazine / Robin Hammond with permission to use for this Leakey News from the Field. Individuals have consented to public release of this photo.

Most of human genetic diversity is found in Sub-Saharan Africa — and among Sub-Saharan Africans. The most genetically diverse people are the KhoeSan populations of Southern Africa. With the help of The Leakey Foundation, I went to the Cederberg Mountains in the Western Cape of South Africa to expand what we know about KhoeSan genetic diversity.

Since 2005, I have been working in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa among people who identify as San, Bushmen, ≠Khomani San, Nama, and Coloured, or collectively as “KhoeSan.” However, further south, you would be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western Cape Province who identifies with a traditional KhoeSan cultural group. Rather most people who have KhoeSan ancestry may call themselves “Coloured” (an apartheid term), “South African,” or “I don’t know what I am.”

Consenting individuals in Clanwilliam for participation. A local research assistant (Jassie Henys) and USA research team member (Justin Myrick) assist with consent. Individuals have agreed to public release of this photo. Photo credit: Rebecca Siford

Much of the population genetic research on KhoeSan peoples is done with the indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, called the San or Bushmen (a derogatory term, but sometimes used by the people themselves). KhoeSan people and their ancestors, however, occupied a large area of Southern Africa, and if we are to grasp the true extent of human genetic diversity, we must include the KhoeSan peoples and their descendants from outside the Kalahari. At the time of European colonization, the Cederberg Mountains were historically home to hunter-gatherer KhoeSan peoples; their presence today in the area is largely unrecognized. This project will bridge my previous work by characterizing the rich shared ancestry of the Kalahari San, the Namaqualand Nama, and the Cederberg Coloured.

In 2017, with my team from SUNY Stony Brook (now at UC Davis), we collected saliva samples from 200 individuals in small villages throughout the Cederberg. The benefits of collecting saliva in the field is that it’s non-invasive compared to taking blood samples. Collecting saliva is weird though, and participants will sometimes become embarrassed or wonder why anyone would want “spoeg,” as even doctors don’t look at spit! However, saliva contains white blood cells which are an excellent source of DNA.

A major shortcoming in human genetics is that our understanding of the genetic underpinnings of our phenotypes lacks data from sub-Saharan Africans, the populations with the greatest amount of genetic diversity. In addition to investigating human ancestry and past migrations, my team also works to elucidate the genetics behind height and skin pigmentation. Discussing skin pigmentation and ancestry in South Africa is laden with sociopolitical histories of oppression that still have effects today. Each interview with a participant begins with an in-depth consent and project description process.

Measuring height for a woman from the Cederberg, with research assistants in the background (Henn Lab from SUNY Stony Brook: Rebecca Siford, Justin Myrick; local research assistant Riann Salomon). Photo is the copyright of National Geographic Magazine / Robin Hammond with permission to use for this Leakey News from the Field. Individuals have consented to public release of this photo.

Researching ancestry and skin pigmentation opened the door to various unexpected ethnographic interviews with participants and other South Africans the team met. Many Coloured people of the Cederberg who participated in the study didn’t know who their ancestors were, whether they were a mix of Black and White South Africans, came from some other place, or as they would say: “or what?” Participants and community members voiced their goals for the study— to dust off their history, to bring validity to a truth buried under generations of apartheid and colonial treatment that demeaned KhoeSan peoples as primordial, and implicitly justified land seizures and indentured servitude. As the DNA research results become available, my team and I will return to the Cederberg to present them to the community.