August 18 2007
All South Africans are settlers, regardless of their skin colour, and their DNA carries the proof.
So says Dr Wilmot James, head of the African Genome Project, a distinguished academic, sociologist and, more recently, honorary professor of human genetics at the University of Cape Town.
And he says South Africans will soon have a public genetic database which will show how the country became populated over thousands of years.
The African Genome project is supported by local genealogy website Ancestry24.com
James aims to trace the origins of South Africans "no matter what their language, ethnic origins, or skin colour".
"No one group can lay claim to South Africa. Everyone is a settler, and we will show how people came here in waves of migration."
Next month he and his colleague, associate professor Himla Soodyall, will do mass genetic testing of Capetonians.
Soodyall is the principal medical scientist at the National Health Laboratory Service and is an associate professor in the Division of Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand.
James says he expects about 300 people will come for free testing on September 9. The test simply involves swabbing the inside of a person's cheek.
"Normally it costs R1 000 a time but this is a public exercise in science and a journey through the history of South Africa," said James.
The results will be out early in 2008. The data will be used to map how people migrated here more than 100 000 years ago. They will do similar testing in Johannesburg.
The Africa Genome project aims to fill a gap in the current DNA databases available worldwide and establish the diversity of ancestry in the South African population.
The testing will offer another view of SA history since written history only goes back 400 years. It will also further confirm archaeological and palaeontological evidence.
"We do not understand our history well enough and the truth has been modified in many stories," says James.
"South Africa is not the site of human origins. The Sterkfontein caves have evidence of pre-modern humans, but modern man comes from East Africa where there is evidence of significant human presence dating back at least 100 000."
The Khoi/San moved from East Africa and, up until 2 000 years ago, people living in southern Africa were brown.
Africa's black people are originally from the Niger/ Congo region.
James says genetic testing will confirm the theory that there is a population in South Africa whose ancestors were from Niger/Congo.
Even though the test itself is easy, it is the lab work from where all the exciting details will come to light.
Looking at what is known as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which comes from mothers, and Y chromosome DNA which comes from fathers, scientists are able to reconstruct the hereditary lineage of individuals and their families as far back as 100 000 years.
The limitation of this approach is that those ancestors who did not pass on their genes by having surviving children are excluded from the studies.
"Still, we are able to enrich beyond measure our understanding of who we are and where it is we come from," said James.
"Some DNA mitochondria do not combine, they develop mutations which creep in and these are seen as fingerprints. They can be traced to where geographic concentrations of the same mutations occur."
James's own test results have revealed that he has Indian, Spanish, German and English forebears.
His mother's one line is Southern Pakistan/Northern Indian and German. Her father was a Hartel and James still has a title deed handed down from generation to generation for a piece of land along the Liesbeek River granted to German infantryman Wilhelm George Hartel by Cape Governor Simon van der Stel.
It is from Hartel that James inherited Factor V Leiden, a mutation in his genes which has resulted in him having a clotting disorder, making him susceptible to deep vein thrombosis.
His ancestors on his father's side are English; no surprise there, considering his surname. But he emphasises that ultimately everyone's ancestors were Africans, who migrated into Europe tens of thousands of years ago.
His next project will be to concentrate on groups like Italians, Muslims and Jews.
"Italian prisoners of war worked on many of the Cape farms and they had families here. Eventually the project would like to reunite those Italian descendants with their families in Italy. The same for those of Javanese descent.
"In fact, there are all types of settlers in South Africa, with successive waves of immigrants. The ultimate question for us to find an answer to is: what is an African?"