Ancient Human Genome From Southern Africa Is Bringing Us Close To Finding Eve, Our Common Female Ancestor

Reproduction of a Neanderthal woman of Sidon Cave in Asturias, rooms of prehistory at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Cristina Arias/Cover/Getty Images)

Scientists have found a major clue in the hunt for Eve, the single ancestor to all humans alive today.

While not the first woman of biblical theory, this common ancestor is thought to have lived up to 200,000 years ago. Every other woman at that time eventually had no female offspring and their lines died out. This means that all alive today can trace their lineage back to that single woman.

Scientists found Eve’s oldest and closest relative when they sequenced the maternal DNA from the skeleton of a man who lived 2330 years ago in the southernmost tip of Africa tell. His is one of the oldest in genetic terms found to date in a region where modern humans are believed to have originated about 200,000 years ago.

Archaeologist Andrew Smith from the University of Cape Town discovered the skeleton at St Helena Bay in 2010, very close to the site where 117,000 year old human footprints were discovered.

He contacted Professor Vanessa Hayes, a world-renowned expert in African genomes, and now Sydney resident.

Professor Vanessa Hayes in the field. Image: Chris Bennett photography

The complete 1.5 metre tall skeleton was examined and found to be a marine forager.

A bony growth in his ear canal, known as surfer’s ear, suggested he spent some time diving for food in the cold coastal waters. Osteoarthritis and tooth wear placed him in his fifties.

The team generated a complete maternal genome using DNA extracted from a tooth and a rib.

The findings provided genomic evidence that the man, from a lineage now presumed extinct, as well as other indigenous coastal dwellers like him, is so far the most closely related to Eve, the common ancestor.

“None of us that walk on this planet now are pure anything – we are all mixtures,” says Professor Hayes. “For example 1-4% of Eurasians even carry Neanderthal DNA.

“In this study, I believe we may have found an individual from a lineage that broke off early in modern human evolution and remained geographically isolated. That would contribute significantly to refining the human reference genome.”

The study, which underlines the significance of southern African archaeological remains in defining human origins, is published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

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