Khoisan people of South Africa were once the most populous humans on Earth
The Khoisan, an indigenous population in Namibia, may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. The Khoisan population declined about 22,000 years ago and again during the 17th century's European colonialists' incursions into Africa.
The new study by geneticists published in Nature Communications, reviewed by the journal Science, revealed that the Khoisan, now numbering about 100,000, are a genetically diverse group because of a large ancestral population in the distant past. The name ‘Khoisan’ generally refers to the hunters and herders of a number of ethnic groups that speak a distinctive click language, although it is not the name that the population use for themselves. Historically, there were two groups of peoples in the Khoisan language family, the Khoi Khoi pastoralists or herders, and the San, who were hunters and gatherers. Today, they are known collectively as the Khoisan.
Adverse climatic conditions in Africa caused by glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere prior to 22,000 years ago reduced human populations, but Southern Africa maintained a good climate, reports Phys.org, which also reviewed the new genetic study. Good weather results in easier living conditions and plentiful food, so populations known collectively as the Khoisan thrived.
Khoisan, people known for their rare click language, may have been the most numerous humans, but they remain genetically distinct from Europeans, Asians and other Africans. Some of these other groups moved out of Africa and populated Europe, Asia and the rest of the planet around the same time that Khoisan people were in the majority, Phys.org says.
"Khoisan hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa always have perceived themselves as the oldest people" said Stephan Schuster, a former Penn State University professor, now at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and a leader of the research team.
Many Khoisan still hunt as they did thousands of years ago. Photo by Paul Weinberg from the series ‘Once we were Hunters’ (Wikimedia Commons)
The study looked at 420,000 genetic variants across 1,462 genomes from 48 ethnic groups. “These analyses reveal that Southern African Khoisans are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans,” reports Phys.org.
Previous research has also suggested that Khoisan people may be directly descended from mankind's oldest common paternal ancestors. DNA studies in the 1990s, found that the Y chromosome of San men, one of the indigenous populations making up the Khoisan, share certain patterns of genetic variation that are different from those of all other populations. It was theorized that the San are one of the first populations to have differentiated from the most recent common paternal ancestor of all extant humans, estimated to have lived 60,000 to 90,000 years ago.
Researchers found that through history Khoisan intermarried little with other ethnic groups, which helped preserve their genetic uniqueness.
"This and previous studies show that the Khoisan peoples and the rest of modern humanity shared their most recent common ancestor approximately 150,000 years ago, so it was entirely unexpected to find that this group apparently did not intermarry with non-Khoisan neighbors for many thousand years," said Webb Miller, professor of Bioinformatics at Penn State and a member of the research team, as reported on Phys.org. "The current Khoisan culture and tradition, where marriage occurs either among Khoisan groups or results in female members leaving their tribes after marrying non-Khoisan men, appears to be long-standing."
Khoisan people required men from one clan to marry women from other clans. Khoisan villages consisted of more than 100 people living in cone-shaped huts. The villagers were men from the same clan with their wives and children. Villages were united into groups known as tribes or hordes.
Khoisan-speaking people were decimated by European colonialists, their lands stolen and cultures suppressed. In 2012, South African President Jacob Zuma said the Khoisan suffered the most of any group under European colonialism. "It is important to remember that the Khoisan people were the most brutalized by colonialists who tried to make them extinct, and undermined their language and identity. As a free and democratic South Africa today, we cannot ignore to correct the past," he said, as reported in South African History Online.
Khoisan populations were wiped out by war and smallpox. European settlers stole much of their land. As herders and hunters, the Khoisan needed large areas to graze their animals, hunt and gather food. Their population was further decimated by loss of livelihood due to land theft. Though much historical Khoisan territory is now farmed, some Khoisan still live their traditional lives of hunting and gathering or herding.
Featured image: ‘Khoisan busy barbecuing grasshoppers’, 1805, by Samuel Daniell. (Wikipedia)
By Mark Miller