Molecular Anthropology Could Provide the Vital Link to Our Ancestry

Cape Times (South Africa), March 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Molecular Anthropology Could Provide the Vital Link to Our Ancestry


It is a recent field of academic work called molecular anthropology. Molecular because information is derived from large molecules such as proteins and the nucleic acids, ribonucleic acids or RNA and deoxyribonucleic acids or DNA.

It is anthropology because we re-construct the nature of human societies in their pre-literate stages, be-fore industrial life came along. As we are about 150 000 years old and have lived in industrial society for at most 400 years, molecular anthropology covers most of human history.

Traditional anthropology relied on archaeology (the study of things left behind by humans long after they perished) as well as paleontology (the study of bones and other anatomical parts) to draw conclusions about human life.

Now anthropology draws on an additional layer of information provided by molecular biology, which is the study of the structure and function of the large molecules of living organisms. Knowledge of molecules by no means replaces the importance of archaeology or paleontology. It enhances knowledge by introducing another layer, at times confirming what we know from the study of things and bones, and at times questioning it and raising critical debate. Therefore, molecular anthropology stands at the cutting edge of modern biology and the social sciences.

UCT human genetics professor Raj Ramesar calls it the “crossings”, in modern knowledge systems, between natural, health and social sciences, as well as the humanities. It is the field that brings to us scientific ancestry testing. A growing business worldwide, everyone is interested in their ancestry. Our first curiosity when we meet one another is to decipher where we come from.

Spencer Wells’ Genographic Project, a collaboration between National Geographic and IBM, tested my female line of ancestry and revealed that I share a common ancestor with people who presently live in northern India and southern Pakistan.

For this test, they took a cheek swab of cells and looked at the molecular structure of what is known as mitochondrial DNA, the energy-producing bits found in the cytoplasm of the cell. Biologists are able to identify and date changes in DNA and RNA over time and, by reading history backwards, establish a clock in evolution.

I recently received the results of another series of tests from South Africa’s guru in the field, Himla Soodyall.

Soodyall is a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and works for the National Health Laboratory Service. …

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Molecular Anthropology Could Provide the Vital Link to Our Ancestry
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