DM168 Feature

Secret tales: the ancient DNA in a hair

By Shaun Smillie 23 February 2021

The paternal DNA of the hair found in the Vaalkrans Cave was provided by descendants who were herders who came down from East Africa, between 2,000 and 1,200 years ago. (Photo: Pete Linforth / Pixabay)

A single strand of hair found in the Vaalkrans Cave outside Bredasdorp tells a world of stories about the people who inhabited the area - and their ancestors - but also brings up many more questions.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Long ago a man sleeping in a cave did what we all do as we toss and turn through the night – he shed a little hair.

Two centuries later a strand of that hair is telling his story and that of his people.

It is a tale of an ancient migration and the sad effects of colonial rule.

The strand of hair, which is just shorter than a match stick, was plucked from the packed grasses of what was once a bed in the Vaalkrans Cave, in the southern Cape near Bredasdorp.

The hair was taken to a laboratory at Uppsala University, in Sweden, where Alexandra Coutinho was tasked with trying to extract DNA from it.

Coutinho was initially sceptical. The hair root, which is usually a rich reservoir of DNA, was not attached to the strand.

“The shaft looked like it had been plucked yesterday,” recalls Coutinho. “It was amazing, though, that we could get DNA at all.”

Coutinho and her colleagues usually turn to bone and teeth in their search for ancient DNA.

They found that the hair had come from a man with Khoi ancestry. What surprised the team working on the project was just how Khoi he actually was – so much so that his ancestry matched that of Khoi people who had lived hundreds of years earlier.

“We realised that this man was a Khoi Khoi, he hadn’t mixed … with either European or Bantu-speakers,” explains Associate Professor Carina Schlebusch, of Uppsala University, who worked on the project.

“If you look at the people currently living in the area, genetically they are quite mixed. They have a lot of European ancestry but also West African Bantu-speaker ancestry,” she says.

Bantu-speaking farmers, of which the Zulu and Xhosa are descendants, originated in West Africa and reached northeastern South Africa about 1,800 years ago.

The team’s findings have been published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The Khoi man’s genetic make-up matches up with older samples that Schlebusch and her team have collected over the years.

“The results confirm ancient DNA results we have got previously that showed that the Khoi Khoi people were a mixture of local San groups and the incoming East African group,” adds Schlebusch.

His paternal DNA was provided by descendants who were herders who came down from East Africa, between 2,000 and 1,200 years ago. His mother’s forebearers were of hunter-gatherer Bushman/San stock.

The Khoi man’s ancestors also left another genetic marker. He carried the allele LP-SNP 14010G, which would have given him the ability to digest milk. The allele is considered an indicator for identifying pastoralists – people who had introduced milk into their diets.

The Maasai of East Africa also share the allele.

When that Khoi man was using the Vaalkrans Cave as his shelter he would have been living through a rapidly changing world.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Khoi were being decimated. Waves of smallpox epidemics had greatly reduced their population. The people who were known for their abundant herds of cattle were giving up their pastoral ways and settling on white-owned farms, where they often worked as bonded labour.

It is not known how much contact the man in the cave had with Europeans. But they were in the area at the time.

Just 20km to the north of the Vaalkrans Cave is Swellendam, which had been declared a magisterial district in 1743.

“Close to the hair was also some copper and iron, suggesting that the final occupants of the site may have had contact with European material culture or people, or that they salvaged material from Portuguese or Dutch shipwrecks that litter this coast,” says archaeologist Professor Marlize Lombard of the University of Johannesburg.

A symbol of Khoi suffering and humiliation is the story of Sara Baartman and it is possible that she and the man in the cave were alive at the same time.

Baartman, who became known by the derogatory term “The Hottentot Venus” after she was taken to Europe as an exhibit, was born in the Camdeboo region of what is now the Eastern Cape.

She was taken to England in 1810 where she was put on as an exhibit in the Egyptian Hall of Piccadilly Circus. Crowds came to gawk at her unusual physical features that included her large protruding buttocks. She was soon being mocked by early 19th-century cartoonists.

Four years later Baartman was sold to an animal trainer in France.

In 1815, she died in poverty, possibly from smallpox, the same disease that had killed so many of her people.

Her remains would be displayed in museums in Paris for the next 150 years, until 2002 when Baartman’s body was finally repatriated to South Africa, where she was buried near the town of Hankey, in the Eastern Cape.

It is possible that the man in the cave kept away from the rapid changes that were occurring at the time.

Perhaps he and his forefathers had sidestepped the steamroller of colonialism, which brought slavery and genetic mingling. But it is all a mystery now.

“What was it that isolated this man and his relations from other populations that were incoming? What was it that kept him away?” asks Coutinho. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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