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Study: 'Eve' Came From East Africa
By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

April 24, 2003 — "African Eve," the female ancestor of all humans, likely hailed from East Africa, according to a recent study.

If the current analysis is correct, East Africa probably served as the cradle of humanity many thousands of years ago.

Sarah Tishkoff, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of biology at the University of Maryland, explained that the term African Eve "…refers to an ancestral mitochondrial DNA genome.

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"All genomes today are descended from one person, but she lived in a larger population. By chance, her neighbor's mtDNA genomes 'died out' and never made it into the modern gene pool."

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited unchanged from the mother only, allowing researchers to trace unadulterated DNA back hundreds of thousands of years.

For the Eve study, blood samples were taken from over 1,000 ethnically and linguistically diverse populations in Tanzania. Tishkoff and her colleagues focused on the mtDNA from a subset of 500 that represented remote populations, many of which have never been studied before.

Tishkoff presents the findings on Thursday at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology.

The oldest DNA lineages show the greatest diversity. When the Tanzanian test subset was compared with existing genetic data, Tanzania and other East African countries, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, displayed the most diversity, and are therefore likely the oldest mtDNA in Africa.

While Tishkoff and her team were unable to narrow Eve's origins down to a single population, possible candidates include the Burunge and Iraqw, who probably migrated from Ethiopia to Tanzania within the last 5,000 years; the Maasai and Datog, who are thought to have originated in southern Sudan; and two very ancient Tanzanian populations, the Sandawe and Hadza.

"The Sandawe and Hadza live about 150 km (93.21 miles) apart, but they look very different," Tishkoff told Discovery News. "The Hadza are dark skinned and the Sandawe are light skinned, for instance. They both practice hunting and gathering and are thought to be descendants of very ancestral populations from that region."

The two populations speak using a click language. A South African group, the !Kung san, also speak with a click language and previously were thought to be one of Africa's oldest populations.

Because genetic studies reveal the !Kung san and Sandawe share a common ancestor from 37,000 years ago, Tishkoff and her team now believe the !Kung san may have originated in East Africa and later migrated southward.

Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology at George Washington University, thinks the East Africa Eve theory is "definitely a possibility."

Brooks found some of the earliest evidence for modern human behavior — finely crafted barbed bones that were used for fishing — in Eastern Zaire. She told Discovery News that long-distance trade networks, microlithic technology (small, interlocking tools), and the presence of an animal- and plant-rich environment all suggest East Africa was the origination point for modern human development.

Brooks said, "From Ethiopia into Tanzania and Zambia, we see evidence for a large human population that was culturally complex very early on, even by the Middle Stone Age (200,000-30,000 years ago)."

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Picture(s): Courtesy of Sarah Tishkoff |
Jennifer Viegas

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