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'Humans originate from Botswana' researcher comes home

THALEFANG CHARLES
Homecoming: Prof Hayes received a warm welcome at Makgadikgadi Pans PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
KUDIAKAM PAN: Just a few days after the 2019 General Election on October 28, before the new president could even be inaugurated, a landmark study came out. Published in the distinguished British scientific journal, Nature, the study concluded that Botswana is the ancestral homeland of all humankind.

Although the news made headlines across the world following the published study, at some point beating both US President Donald Trump’s then impending impeachment trial and Brexit blockbusters, Botswana was still busy reeling from the elections aftermath, and focused on its local politics.

Exactly four months since publication of the explosive study, last weekend its leading researcher, Professor Vanessa Hayes made her first visit to Botswana for the Human Origins Seminar in Maun.

Professor Hayes is a South African-born Australian geneticist based at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.

Her research is based on using human DNA code to define origins, evolution and diseases. Hayes comes from a school of thought that to understand human diseases defined by our genetics (e.g cancer), we need to understand what has made us all survivors and to understand human survival, we must trace our genetic history back to our common family.

Hayes has spent 10 years in Namibia with the Khoisan conducting a study that eventually pinpointed to across the border in Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana as the specific area where all the 7.7 billion humans’ common family originated - a cradle of human kind.

“When you publish a paper about Human origins, the word ‘human’ suddenly becomes awfully vague,” this was said by Professor Hayes when she was questioned to show where the great apes, from Australopithecus to Homo Erectus fit in her explosive discovery.

She explained that most archaeologists and geneticists agree that modern humans – Homo Sapiens - have been living on earth since 200,000 years ago. Professor Hayes admits that indeed humans share a common ancestor with the great apes, including chimps and gorillas as researchers have already proposed, but she has strong objections on the evolution theory.

Inside a fully packed conference room at Crocodile Camp, Professor Hayes displayed a famous illustration showing the human evolution from apes to modern human and described it as the “misleading picture of all time”.

She said it was undeniable that we share 99% of our DNA with chimps, but that one percent difference equates to about five to six million years.

The geneticist said they have no idea what our common ancestor looked like, and only until they find a skeleton and get its DNA sequence would they know.

The first gorilla that had its first DNA sequenced was a 30-year-old female one from the San Diego Zoo in 2008.

So Hayes questions, “How could we have evolved from a chimp if the chimp is living today?”

Hayes said their research focused on Homo Sapiens, a species of primate notable for its rounded skull, small face, prominent chin, advanced

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tools, high intelligence and sophisticated culture.

“Our study only pointed to modern human family, who has been living on earth since 200,000 years ago,” she said.

Hayes’ study went further than other previous researches by pinpointing an exact area where the alleged first family originated. Some archaeologists using fossil evidence had suggested that modern humans came from eastern Africa.

Hayes said their study, conducted through maternal DNA data from more than 1,200 people in Namibia and South Africa, proposes that the modern human first family lived near Makgadikgadi in Botswana for 70,000 years before climate change led to the first migrations.

On her maiden seminar in Maun, the renowned geneticist started her talk with an Aboriginal ritual called ‘Welcome to Country’. She explained that it was a “ritual that is performed to say thank you to the ancestors of that land you are standing on”.

She highlighted the significance of performing the ritual in Botswana before saying, “Welcome to Homeland. Welcome to Makgadikgadi”.

In the following morning Department of Museums took Hayes on a tour to Makgadikgadi led by the National Museum’s chief archeologist, Phillip Segadika. The entourage visited the Kudiakam Pan where the so-called Baines Baobabs (named after 19th century explorer Thomas Baines) are located.

It was the very first time Professor Hayes stepped on the white sands of the area that she just made famous globally by declaring as the human’s ‘Homeland’. She described the moment as “surreal”.

Government through the Department of Museum and Monuments, and University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute promised to forge partnerships with researchers including Hayes to stimulate research in the Makgadikgadi.

Landscape archaeologist, Dr Sarah Mothulatshipi said the Hayes homeland study actually complements their ongoing research work in the Makgadikgadi. She presented that researchers have largely neglected Makgadikgadi, but their work, especially in the Ntwetwe Pan has uncovered some interesting Stone Age artifacts. 

Botswana National Museum said it has a record of 30 Middle Stone Age (around 200,000 years ago) sites that had the presence of actual formal tools.

Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Philda Kereng said the research would assist Makgadikgadi Pans to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as they have proposed for its listing. Currently there are only two World Heritage Sites listed in Botswana, which are Tsodilo Hills and the Okavango Delta.

Interestingly, both archaeological evidence and DNA research have shown the connection of Tsodilo Hills, Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi Pans.

The Minister also said Hayes’ homeland study gives an opportunity for the revitalised branding of the Makgadikgadi as a cradle and a fresh tourism trail that will highlight key sites.



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