Johan Fourie's blog

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We are all European

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We are from Europe. Oh, we are too.

“We are from Europe.” “Oh, we are too.”

Kids, throw away those South African history textbooks. Or those coffee table history books with pictures of Kirstenbosch or Groot Constantia or the Company’s Gardens on the cover. Or those serious historical works that proclaimed that South Africa’s system of apartheid between the descendants of European immigrants and native Africans began in 1652 when a motley bunch of sailors and soldiers arrived in Table Bay to build a refreshment station for the fragile ships of the Dutch East India Company. Throw them away, because they are all untrue.

No longer can it be claimed that Europeans first settled in South Africa in 1652. Instead, Europeans arrived much earlier, around 1000, and settled throughout the western and northern Cape, trading with the indigenous inhabitants – the hunter-gatherer San – and often using them as servants, slaves or wives. They brought with them new resources and technologies – cattle-farming, for example – as they settled the some of the nicest regions of the country, forcing the San, or Bushmen, into the more rugged and less fertile regions, like the  Kgalagadi (with which we now associate them).

Who were these ‘European’ invaders? They were the Khoe, and they were – at least, partly – European. That is the startling conclusion of a recent study published in New Scientist. By using DNA analysis, a team of Harvard scientists found traces of European DNA – “sequences from southern Europeans, including Sardinians, Italians and people from the Basque region” – in the DNA of modern-day Khoesan tribes. The scientists estimate that the European DNA made their way into Khoesan DNA sometime between 900 and 1800 years ago – which was well before known European contact with southern Africa.

We know that the Khoe migrated into South Africa from modern-day Botswana. They were a cattle-herding people, slowly moving south from their roots in modern-day Kenya. In South Africa, they settled first along the Gariep (Orange) river, and then, over decades and centuries, moved south to settle in parts of the Eastern Cape, where they met the Xhosa, and Western Cape, where they lived alongside the San. We knew that the Khoe descended from east African tribes. What we did not know was that these tribes were descended from migrants with a very similar DNA to modern-day southern Europeans:

Archaeological and linguistic studies suggest that a subset of the Khoisan, known as the Khoe-Kwadi speakers, arrived in southern Africa from east Africa around 2200 years ago. David Reich and his team found that the proportion of Eurasian DNA was highest in Khoe-Kwadi tribes, who have up to 14 per cent of western Eurasian ancestry. What is more, when they looked at the east African tribes from which the Khoe-Kwadi descended, they found a much stronger proportion of Eurasian DNA – up to 50 per cent.

Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa between 125000 and 60000 years ago, and it is from this migration that all humans descend. Recent evidence suggests that these migrants interbred with Neanderthals in Europe, to the extend that Neanderthal DNA survives in some European population groups today. But the return migration into Africa (probably through Ethiopia) is something that few scientists expected. Moreover, the proof of this return migration is in the fact that Neanderthal DNA was also found in many African populations, including the Khoesan and tribes in modern Nigeria.

So much for apartheid history which taught us that Europeans first ‘discovered’ the southern tip of Africa on 3 February 1488 when Bartholomeu Dias’ ship entered what he called Aguada de São Brás, later renamed Mossel Bay. Or for apartheid racial hierarchies. Or for current distinctions between ‘European coloniser’ and ‘indigenous African’. As the lead scientist, David Reich, suggests, ‘the cultural implications are complex and potentially uncomfortably close to European colonial themes. I actually am not sure there’s any population that doesn’t have west Eurasian DNA’.

We are not only all African, we are all European too.


Written by Johan Fourie

February 11, 2014 at 05:39

5 Responses

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  1. […] a single group but for the purposes of this post, let’s assume they are. More about them here.) Blacks did arrive south of the Limpopo (around 300 AD) long before whites , but they did not […]

  2. […] San was iron-working and crop cultivation: two key ingredients to support larger populations. Recent evidence shows that another group – the Khoe – moved into South Africa roughly between 900 and 1300 CE. […]

  3. […] Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape when Europeans arrived in the mid-seventeenth century. (Read this for more on the origin of the Khoesan.) Two centuries later, the descendants of the Khoesan and […]

  4. Johan Fourie’s article “We are all European” seems to me to be overstating the findings as reported in the New Scientist article. Here is a good quote from the article: “Eurasian genes made their way into east African genomes around 3000 years ago. About a millennium later, the ancestors of the Khoe-Kwadi headed south, carrying a weaker signal of the Eurasian DNA into southern Africa.” And here: “”These populations were always thought to be pristine hunter-gatherers who had not interacted with anyone for millennia,” says Reich’s collaborator, linguist Brigitte Pakendorf of the University of Lyon in France. “Well, no. Just like the rest of the world, Africa had population movements too”.

    Peter Boardman

    February 12, 2014 at 11:54

    • I don’t think he was overstating the findings at all – the implications are as big or small as public perception makes them, however I think that it is a fascinating new discovery which people should celebrate and talk about. Had people known about it sooner, I’m certain that what it means to be considered “African” or “European” would have been different… or at least influenced positively. Even while people now know that the world’s population effectively comes from one genetic pool (with the exception of the Neanderthals, of course, which is also quite shocking…!), there is still a persisting belief that once African’s left Africa, they never looked back, and it was only “progress” from there. 3000 years is comparatively recent in the broader history of human evolution.


      February 25, 2014 at 22:38

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