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Finding the apple and snake in the Eden of the Makgadikgadi

Trees of Lekhubu Island at Makgadikgadi Pans. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES.jpg
This week started on a high for Botswana with leading international headlines reporting the news that our Makgadikgadi has been identified as the singular cradle of all modern humans.

However, the study says this happened some 200,000 years ago when the landscape was a lake, lush green and replete with even more wildlife on which our forebears feasted.

This is based on the research led by, amongst others, geneticist Professor Vanessa Hayes of the Garven Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia working with a team from the University of Pretoria.

Their initial research really had nothing to do with tracing homo sapiens and the origins of man. Rather their work derives from an interest in tracing the antiquity of the unique, widespread and enduring nature of prostate cancer in Africa.

However, like all research digressing into juicy terrain, the tracing of the ancientness of the prostate cancer through an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA led the team to delve into a search for the oldest genes in the Southern African region. Known as L-O, these are known to be residing mostly amongst Khoisan communities whose 1,217 samples were collected in South Africa and Namibia.

The work of Vanessa Hayes and team is more like the ‘fire churches’ taking converts by storm while offending the established churches and irritating atheists. That explains the avalanche of denigration of Hayes’ work as soon as it was published.

Being a geneticist, Vanessa broke established tradition by neither ascribing the cradle of modern humans to either the East African Rift Valley or South Africa.

Such claims, usually by paleontologists and not geneticists, have conventionally followed the discovery of skeletal remains or artworks found in association with archaeological findings.

In fact, contrary to some social media claims, the research was not even undertaken in Botswana neither were any ancient skeletal remains discovered in the Makgadikgadi by her team.

Rather, the extrapolation of the Makgadikgadi as the Eden is based on a complex of variations and models from an analysis of the genes that point to the type of terrain that would have hosted the ancestors of modern humans some 200,000 years ago.

Now, that too is a little controversial because while 20 years ago modern

humans were thought to have erupted about 200,000 years ago, recent discoveries have stretched that age to 100,000 years earlier making Hayes’ story sadly outdated in its range. 

One of the most criticised aspects of the Hayes Makgadikgadi cradle is the very idea of ascribing a single place of origin when there has been consensus amongst scholars, for ages now, that there has been multiple eruptions and locations (Pan African Origin) in the story of human evolution.

However, what is probably pleasing is that in all the proposals for ancientness, the San have been identified amongst the living populations illustrating the oldest genes, the politically correct nomenclature and phrase of which is “the most divergent lineages”.

These most divergent lineages are not exclusive to the San of Southern Africa as other populations in West Africa, but using Y Chromosomes, are also known to fall within this description.

Some archaeologists like world-renowned Professor James Cole of Brighton University expressed reservation because Hayes is seen to be using modern populations in a manner that does not seem to respect the longevity in the archaeological record.

The concern is that this could further wrongly help to perpetuate stereotypes of current San as some relics of the past than the reality of a history of intermixing with other population groups across many generations and across the continent.

While the Hayes group has not depended much on archaeological or hominid remains to come up with their conclusion, the presence of over 50 Middle Stone Age Sites in the Makgadikgadi is evidence that human ancestors traversed this landscape between 200,000 and 40,000 years back. 

The study by Hayes may need more corroboration and confirmation through research but it is clear in its conclusion. The Makgadikgadi was not only traversed by the ancestors who have left us thousands of artefacts but the ancient lake was also home to the very first humans in the evolutionary trend.

*Phillip Segadika is a landscape archaeologist and Head of the Archaeology and Monuments Division at the Botswana National Museum




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