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San Bushmen: Genetic Roots of the Human Family Tree

April 4, 2018 Written by Eric Lake

The San Bushmen people are often referred to as being the roots of the human family tree and are sometimes described as being our living human ancestors, but why? On the science side, it has a lot to do with the work of geneticist Spencer Wells. Wells was one of the first people to do quantitative research about the Out of Africa theory using DNA analysis. Before him, most scientific research in support of the theory was done in the social sciences, which have their fair share of interpretation, prejudgment and speculation. To be fair, it should be stated that even DNA analysis is not foolproof and has its own detractors in determining heritage. Using genetic data to map out worldwide human migration, Spencer Wells discovered a pattern in the DNA of the people tested that points to what Wells calls humanity’s First Migration, when humans first began leaving Africa some 60,000 years ago.

Spencer Wells led the Genographic Project from 2005 to 2015 at the National Geographic Society with IBM and the Waitt Foundation, which helped to create personal genomics that are used in medicine today. Before that, he did research fellowships at both Stanford and Oxford, where he lead research into DNA analysis and expeditions into remote parts of the world, traveling to over 100 countries.

This sample-collecting and DNA analysis led Wells to the conclusion that all humans alive today are descended from a single man who lived in Africa around 60,000 to 90,000 years ago (about 2,000 generations ago) and that man was a San Bushmen. This means that you and me and everyone else are not just related to the Bushmen, but we owe who we are to the Bushmen. Spencer Wells described it best by saying that the present day San people are the people that stayed when our forefather decided to walk north.

Wells details humanity’s connection to the Bushmen people in his book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (2002) and later in the PBS documentary of the same name. I have not read the book but I have seen the documentary. Even though the video is a bit dated, Wells is enjoyable to watch and explains in an easy to understand way what he believes our DNA is telling us. He delves into where we came from and how we got were we are today, tracking humanity’s genetic migration out of Africa throughout the world.

Interestingly, the documentary doesn’t shy away from indigenous creation stories in relationship with genetic data finds. Wells meets with Aboriginal and Navajo peoples, asking them about what their stories say about how they got where they are. In a small way, the film looks at the friction between science vs. indigenous knowledge, which takes place and is apparent in the film.
All in all, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey film delves into a very interesting story about how the world is a lot smaller than we tend to think it is. The conclusions Spencer Wells describes in his film and in his work largely inform why it is widely held that the San Bushmen are known to be the roots of the human family tree and are the direct descendants of our common human ancestor.

Note: As artists and filmmakers ourselves, why are we linking to a film on YouTube that’s not on the PBS channel? Not to go to far into the weeds about how YouTube deals with copyrighted content but in this case we feel that it’s ok. We think this version of the film is licensed to play on YouTube, but we are not sure. The reason why we think it’s licensed is that there are ads running on the film, there are a large number of views, multiple uploads and the content has been up for a number of years. We know that PBS uses YouTube’s copyright management system which allows them to control what content can and not be uploaded to YouTube. So we feel if they didn’t want it up there it wouldn’t be.

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