A 2000-year-old local boy has propelled the Dolphin Coast into the forefront of the archealogical world.
Studies of the DNA of a 2 000-year-old skeleton found in the Sibudu cave near Tongaat in the 1960’s, have led scientists to push back the date for the emergence of modern humans worldwide by as much as 100 000 years.
Marlize Lombard, a professor of stone age archaeology at the University of Johannesburg, collaborated with geneticists from Sweden and the University of Witwatersrand in these studies.
Also read: Sibudu rock shelter set for heritage status?
They reconstructed the full genome of the Sibudu child and the other skeletons, finding that the individuals that lived between 2300 and 1800 years ago were related to Khoi-San groups today, whereas the other four who lived between 500 and 300 years ago were genetically related to people of West African descent.
Because the Dolphin Coast boy lived at a time before migrants from further north in Africa arrived, his DNA was a pure, undiluted representation of the earliest humans in Africa, meaning that when his genomes were compared with that of the later African settlers in the area, it could be used to estimate the original split between modern humans and earlier, pre-Homo Sapiens groups.
“This means that modern humans emerged earlier than previously thought,” said Swedish geneticist Mattias Jakobsson.
Until recently it was believed that Homo Sapiens arose slightly more than 200 000 years ago, however gene sequencing of the skeleton – along with that of six others who lived in KZN between 300 and 2000 years ago – has now shown that the evolutionary split between Homo Sapiens and previous human groups occurred 260 000 to 350 000 years ago.
The study’s findings were presented in the online release of the Science research journal last week.
These and other recent discoveries suggest that the human species did not arise in one place, such as east Africa, but in multiple places across the continent in what is called a pan-African origin.
The Sibudu rock shelter lies a few kilometres outside Tongaat. It is an important archaeological site with evidence of human habitation stretching back more than 70 000 years.
The site is also famous for producing the earliest known use of bedding which was made of sedge plants.
This has been dated back to almost 77 000 years ago. Among the findings at Sibudu are a number of stone age tools known as lithic flakes, which were made between 70 000 years and the Middle Stone Age, around 38 000 years ago.
There are also tools and other items from early Iron Age occupation, around 1000 years BC.
Despite its obvious tourism qualities, the cave is not likely to allow visitors for years to come because it is still a delicate site and tourism could disturb the work being done.
So, wherever you find yourself today – remember to wish your fellow humans a happy 350 000th birthday!
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