Anthropologists have found the oldest known DNA from Africa in the highlands of northern Malawi.
When anthropologist Jessica Thompson attended a human origins conference years ago, she heard a presenter lament: “Of course, there is no ancient DNA from Africa because of the poor preservation there.”
That’s when something clicked in her mind: In 2005, she had visited Malawi, a place in Africa that had neither extremes of heat or wetness—two main environmental factors that degrade DNA. She also knew that scant archaeological research had taken place in the region, although a team had unearthed several ancient skeletons there decades ago.
The journal Cell just published an analysis of the new discoveries, filling in thousands of years of human prehistory of hunter-gatherers in Africa, led by Harvard University geneticist David Reich.
Thompson, the paper’s second author, contributed and described the cultural context for nearly half of the 15 new DNA finds, including the oldest samples. Her fieldwork in Malawi uncovered two human leg bones that yielded 6,100-year-old DNA—and her work is ongoing at a site where a newly dated skeleton with 8,100-year-old DNA was recovered several years ago.
“For the first time, we can see the distribution of ancient hunter-gatherer DNA across Africa, showing how these populations were connected in the past.”
In addition to the 6,100-year-old DNA, Thompson’s team unearthed other human remains that yielded six more samples ranging in age from about 2,500 to 5,000 years ago. The other DNA in the Cell paper ranges in age from 3,000-to-500 years ago and comes from South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya.
“Malawi is positioned in between where living hunter-gatherers survive,” Thompson says. “For the first time, we can see the distribution of…