An extinct population has been rediscovered by researchers in southern Africa. This region holds perhaps the greatest human genetic diversity, and a recent study has shown that people have maintained their genetic identity even as the native language they spoke “died out.”
An extinct population has been rediscovered by researchers
It is a common pattern that genetic diversity is greatest in the areas of origin of species. Thus, anthropologists know that humans arose and evolved in Africa, even in the absence of fossils, given the sheer size of the genetic diversity there.
The best, but also dramatic example can be seen among the inhabitants of the Kalahari and Namib deserts, in the southeast of the African continent.
The Namib Desert is a long, narrow desert that stretches along the coast of Namibia and parts of Angola and South Africa.
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Frequent local wars disrupted its northern part for long periods of time and made it difficult to study the genetic diversity in this area.
The stabilization of the region has allowed representatives of the Portuguese-Angolan TwinLab to fill in some of these gaps, identifying patterns in the prehistoric people who lived here, studying current populations, and even discovering populations that are extinct or thought to be extinct.
What region does he live in?
“We were able to locate groups that were thought to have disappeared more than 50 years ago,” Dr. Jorge Rocha of the University of Porto said in a statement.
One of these is the Kwepe population, who used to speak Kwadi, a language whose disappearance is believed to have also marked the separation of that population from their neighbors.
“Kwadi was an important language that shared a common origin with the Khoe languages spoken by hunters and pastoralists throughout southern Africa,” said Dr Ann-Maria Fehn, from the Center for Biodiversity Research.
As part of the project, the team discovered two women who remembered a good deal of their native language, Kwadi, and who lived near the mouth of the Kuroka River, whom Fehn was able to interview.
Using a combination of genetics and linguistic analysis, the researchers investigated the relationships between the inhabitants of the Angolan area of the Namib Desert.
They found that the greatest genetic difference occurred between populations with vastly different lifestyles—farmers versus herders versus traditional hunter-gatherers, for example.
Although the Kwadi language has almost disappeared, the team also found that the descendants of its speakers have retained their distinct genetic identity going back a long way, back to the times before Bantu-speaking farmers settled in the area.
How many speakers of the language spoken by the extinct population still exist
The Namib Desert in Angola and northern Namibia are the only regions where this genetic heritage has survived.
The study allowed the researchers to reconstruct the migrations of populations in the region. Speakers of Kwoe-Kwadi spread across the area about 2,000 years ago, most likely coming from present-day Tanzania.
This makes them “newcomers” compared to the first inhabitants of the region, who spoke the Khoe language and may have lived here for hundreds of thousands of years.
Bantu speakers also arrived in the area 200-500 years later from Central and West Africa.
The Khoe speakers survived here and share the same heritage with the much more difficult to study populations of the Kalahari Desert, while the Bantu speakers differentiated themselves much less from the rest of humanity.
The population that once spoke Kwadi, before adopting the Bantu language in recent decades, are the missing piece identified by this study in the puzzle of humanity.