The biggest surprise of new Mesolithic ancient DNA samples from Morocco is that they lack any European hunter-gatherer ancestry, instead deriving from a mix of Levantine hunter-gatherers and sub-Saharan Africans. Sub-Saharan African admixture was not unexpected, but the proportion of sub-Saharan African ancestry in this ancient DNA is higher than expected, implying early, pre-Neolithic contact between the populations.
North Africa is a key region for understanding human history, but the genetic history of its people is largely unknown. We present genomic data from seven 15,000-year-old modern humans from Morocco, attributed to the Iberomaurusian culture. We find a genetic affinity with early Holocene Near Easterners, best represented by Levantine Natufians, suggesting a pre-agricultural connection between Africa and the Near East. We do not find evidence for gene flow from Paleolithic Europeans into Late Pleistocene North Africans. The Taforalt individuals derive one third of their ancestry from sub-Saharan Africans, best approximated by a mixture of genetic components preserved in present-day West and East Africans. Thus, we provide direct evidence for genetic interactions between modern humans across Africa and Eurasia in the Pleistocene.
Marieke van de Loosdrecht, et al.,"Pleistocene North African genomes link Near Eastern and sub-Saharan African human populations" Science (March 15, 2018).
A related account of the find is aimed at an educated lay audience. It notes that:
DNA in hand, paleogeneticists Marieke van de Loosdrecht and Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, sequenced it. They were able to analyze genetic material from the cell’s nucleus in five people and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from seven people. But they found no genetic tie to ancient Europeans. Instead, the ancient Iberomaurusians appear to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans: They shared about two-thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago, and one-third with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania.
The Iberomaurusians lived before the Natufians, but they were not their direct ancestors: The Natufians lack DNA from Africa, Krause says. This suggests that both groups inherited their shared DNA from a larger population that lived in North Africa or the Middle East more than 15,000 years ago, the team reports today in Science.
As for the sub-Saharan DNA in the Iberomaurusian genome, the Iberomaurusians may have gotten it from migrants from the south who were their contemporaries. Or they may have inherited the DNA from much more ancient ancestors who brought it from the south but settled in North Africa where some of the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, have been found at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.
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