Skeleton is like no other yet found

Time of article published Oct 7, 2014

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Melanie Gosling

A STRANDLOPER hunter-gather, who lived on the West Coast more than 2 000 years ago, had “surfer’s ear” from diving in the cold sea for kreef and alikreukel.

This is one of the secrets researchers have uncovered from examining a skeleton unearthed in St Helena Bay in 2010 by workers digging a trench for a pipeline.

Another important piece of information the skeleton has yielded is a complete, ancient mitochondrial genome – a first in southern Africa.

Until now, no genetic data has been recovered from ancient people who lived along the southern Africa coast.

And what the genome tells us is that there are no known descendants of this man alive today.

Alan Morris, a professor of biological anthropology at UCT and one of the researchers, said this posed two scenarios: “Either his family line died out, or we have not yet met another individual who has carried this man’s genetic material forward.”

Morris said the genome fell into a category that was “pretty typical” for Khoisan people, but the skeleton’s precise pattern had not been seen before.

“With living humans, looking at their genomes is a bit like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The information is all there, but it’s overlapping and there are layers and layers, so it’s harder to interpret. But with this information from the skeleton, it’s like taking a camera back in time. It’s not a reconstruction of the past – it’s information from a person who lived 2 330 years ago.”

The genetic analysis was done by Vanessa Hayes, an expert in African genomics at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.

The man was buried in a grave dug in a shell midden in St Helena Bay. Middens are formed from discarded shells, built up over thousands of years. The man was in his 50s, had good teeth – although worn from a gritty diet – and a bony growth in his ear.

“A bony growth in the ear canal, known as ‘surfer’s ear’, suggests that he spent some time diving for food in the cold coastal water. It is caused by immersion in cold water. It was probably from diving in tidal pools and surf zones to collect shellfish,” Morris said.

Shells carbon-dated to the same period and found near the grave confirmed his seafood diet.

Andrew Smith, a retired emeritus professor from UCT’s archaeology department, was called in to excavate the skeleton when the pipeline workers had uncovered it.

“Shellfish was a large part of their diet, mainly limpets and mussels.

“That this individual had ‘surfer’s ear’ meant he was diving in cold water.”

Smith said the genetic evidence from the skeleton clearly distinguished the prehistoric hunter-gather from the people of the Kalahari.

“This is the first genetic information from people who lived on the coast.

“Evidence from a single skeleton is just a clue – we need more to see the picture of the whole coast at that time.”

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