A boy who lived in what’s now South Africa nearly 2,000 years ago has lent a helping genome to science. Using the long-gone youngster’s genetic instruction book, scientists have estimated that humans emerged as a distinct population earlier than typically thought, between 350,000 and 260,000 years ago.
The trick was retrieving a complete version of the ancient boy’s DNA from his skeleton to compare with DNA from people today and from Stone Age Neandertals and Denisovans. Previously documented migrations of West African farmers to East Africa around 2,000 years ago, and then to southern Africa around 1,500 years ago, reshaped Africans’ genetics — and obscured ancient ancestry patterns — more than has been known, the researchers report online September 28 in Science.
The ancient boy’s DNA was not affected by those migrations. As a result, it provides the best benchmark so far for gauging when Homo sapiens originated in Africa, evolutionary geneticist Carina Schlebusch of Uppsala University in Sweden and her colleagues conclude.
In line with the new genetically derived age estimate for human origins, another team has proposed that approximately 300,000-year-old fossils found in northwestern Africa belonged to H. sapiens (SN: 7/8/17, p. 6). Some researchers suspect a skull from South Africa’s Florisbad site, dated to around 260,000 years ago, qualifies as H. sapiens. But investigators often place our species’ origins close to 200,000 years ago (SN: 2/26/05, p. 141). There is broad consensus that several fossils from that time represent H. sapiens.
Debate over the timing of human origins will continue despite the new evidence from the child, whose remains came from previous shoreline excavations near the town of Ballito Bay, says Uppsala University evolutionary geneticist and study coauthor Mattias Jakobsson. “We don’t know if early Homo sapiens fossils or the Florisbad individual were genetically related to the Ballito Bay boy,” he says.