Genetics is fascinating. The study of population structure — those nations and races that make of humanity — has been infinitely improved by careful analysis of our genes. DNA has replaced the imprecise tools of facial features, skin color, and linguistics as the best tool for understanding the group-level diversity we see today. It was once thought (at least 10 years ago, when I came upon the theory) than the Ashkenazi Jews were an inbred German population, given their Germanic language (Yiddish) and looks that were taken to be exaggerations of European features. It is now generally accepted that the Rhinelander Jews are a Southeast European/Levantine population that at one time were more numerous than “white” Europeans.
Genetics continues to look at these subpopulations — races, you might say — deeply. Now comes an article on two ancient races, that existed for half of humanity’s history — entirely on the African continent:
Mitochondrial Eve And Humanity’s 100,000 Year Genetic Divide | Scientific Blogging
The human race was divided into two separate groups within Africa for as much as half of its existence, says a Tel Aviv University mathematician. Climate change, reduction in populations and harsh conditions may have caused and maintained the separation.
Dr. Saharon Rosset, from the School of Mathematical Sciences at Tel Aviv University, worked with team leader Doron Behar from the Rambam Medical Center to analyze African DNA. Their goal was to study obscure population patterns from hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Rosset, who crunched numbers and did the essential statistical analysis for the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, said the team was trying to understand the timing and dynamics of the split into at least two separate groups.
Recent data suggests that Eastern Africa went through a series of massive droughts between 90,000 and 135,000 years ago. It is possible that this climate shift contributed to the population splits. What is surprising is the length of time the populations were separate — for as much as half of our entire history as a species.
Dr. Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, said, “This new study illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights into some of the key events in our species’ history. Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly an epic drama, written in our DNA.”
While much of this research is conducted because of scientific curiosity, the engine that keeps it going is pharmaceuticals. There’s big money in genes, in changing how they express themselves and even changing which ones are in a body. As we resurrect long-dead plants and animals, it will be fascinating to see how many “extinct genes” rise again through gene therapy and modern medicine.