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Long Island scientists uncover secrets of early civilization from ancient African DNA

Stony Brook University
Stony Brook University

DNA research has painted a new picture of how ancient humans moved across Africa, according to a new study from dozens of scientists, including researchers from Stony Brook University.

Elizabeth Sawchuk is an anthropology professor at Stony Brook and a fellow at the University of Alberta. She and her team looked at the DNA of ancient foragers in Africa — hunters and gatherers from more than 10,000 years ago.

“Things like the spread of herding and farming really transformed African landscapes,” Sawchuk said, “as well as the rise of cities and city-states, trade and even slavery and colonialism.”

Researchers took DNA from ancient bodies they found all across sub-Saharan Africa. Sawchuk found one of the bodies herself. What they found revealed answers about a longstanding mystery in African archaeology — the transition to the later stone age, when people started making art and using new types of tools.

“And we’d never really been able to answer why this happened,” Sawchuk said. “We know that our species had already been around for over 200,000 years, so it’s not like a new species was on the scene.”

The DNA points to a big change in Africa around the time beads, pigments and symbolic art became more widespread. It suggests complicated webs of people moving around central and southern Africa.

“Establishing these trade and exchange networks, finding people and having children with them far away from where they were born,” Sawchuk said. “Creating this complex population structure. It’s really making us understand how people organized themselves completely differently in order to deal with whatever challenges they were facing.”

Sawchuk said as scientists study DNA from older and older people, it could answer even more ancient questions from humanity’s deeper past — including the most remote origins of humanity.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.