But this time, results from a study of ancient DNA presented in the September 28th First Release early online issue of Science show that the 2000-year-old remains of a boy found at Ballito Bay in KwaZulu-Natal during the 1960s, helped to rewrite human history.
Three Stone Age individuals who lived between 2,300 and 1,800 years ago were found to be genetically related to the descendants of Khoe-San groups living in southern Africa today. Southern African ancient genomes estimate modern human divergence to 350,000 to 260,000 years ago.
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The researchers also found evidence for an earlier date in an excavation in June in Morocco that yielded hominid remains that appeared to be 300,000 or more years old.
"This means that modern humans emerged earlier than previously thought", says Mattias Jakobsson, population geneticist at Uppsala University, who headed the project together with Marlize Lombard from the University of Johannesburg. For many years, anthropologists used to think humans evolved in one single corner of Africa from where they dispersed into Europe and Asia through the Middle East.
The researchers' much older estimate for the evolution of modern humans also corresponds with the age of the so-called Florisbad and Hoedjiespunt fossils, which belonged to Homo species that are thought to be our direct ancestors.
The team also reported that all current-day Khoe-San populations admixed with migrant East African pastoralists about a thousand years ago.
The seven individuals lived in southern Africa 2,300 years to 300 years ago. Stone Age individuals, on the other hand, did not carry these protective alleles. "This tells us that Iron Age farmers carried these disease-resistance variants when they migrated to southern Africa", said Helena Malmstrom, archaeo-geneticist at Uppsala University.
Cumulatively, the fossil, ancient DNA and archaeological records indicate that the transition from archaic to modern humans might not have occurred in only one place in Africa.