Botswana for me, has always felt like home and now it appears that it is much closer to my ancestral home. Last December I took a group to the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, which now has more meaning to all of us as humans as recent scientific study puts Northern Botswana as the ancestral home of modern humans.
Scientists say the possible ancestral home of all humans alive today is an area south of the Zambezi River.
Scientists have pinpointed the homeland of all humans alive today to a region south of the Zambezi River. The area is now dominated by salt pans but was once home to an enormous lake, which may have been our ancestral heartland 200,000 years ago. Our ancestors settled for 70,000 years until the local climate changed, researchers have proposed.
They began to move on as fertile green corridors opened up, paving the way for future migrations out of Africa. “It has been clear for some time that anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago,” said Prof Vanessa Hayes, a geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia.
“What has been long debated is the exact location of this emergence and subsequent dispersal of our earliest ancestors.”
Prof Hayes’ conclusions have drawn skepticism from other researchers in the field, however.
The area in question is south of the Zambezi basin, in northern Botswana. The researchers think our ancestors settled near Africa’s huge lake system, known as Lake Makgadikgadi, which is now an area of sprawling salt flats.
“It’s an extremely large area, it would have been very wet, it would have been very lush,” said Prof Hayes. “And it would have actually provided a suitable habitat for modern humans and wildlife to have lived.”
After staying there for 70,000 years, people began to move on. Shifts in rainfall across the region led to three waves of migration 130,000 and 110,000 years ago, driven by corridors of green fertile land opening up.
The first migrants ventured north-east, followed by a second wave of migrants who traveled south-west and a third population remained in the homeland until today. This scenario is based on tracing back the human family tree using hundreds of samples of mitochondrial DNA (the scrap of DNA that passes down the maternal line from mother to child) from living Africans.
By combining genetics with geology and climate computer model simulations, researchers were able to paint a picture of what the African continent might have been like 200,000 years ago.
Reconstructing the human story of our ancestral home
However, the study, published in the journal Nature, was greeted with caution by one expert, who says you can’t reconstruct the story of human origins from mitochondrial DNA alone. Other analyses have produced different answers with fossil discoveries hinting at an eastern African origin. Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, who is not connected with the study, said the evolution of Homo sapiens was a complex process.
“You can’t use modern mitochondrial distributions on their own to reconstruct a single location for modern human origins,” he told BBC News.
“I think it’s over-reaching the data because you’re only looking at one tiny part of the genome so it cannot give you the whole story of our origins.”
Thus, there could have been many homelands, rather than one, which have yet to be pinned down.
Evolutionary milestones in human history
- 400,000 years ago: Neanderthals – our evolutionary cousins – begin to appear and move across Europe and Asia
- 300,000 to 200,000 years ago: Homo sapiens – modern humans’ ancestral home – appear in Africa
- 50,000 to 40,000 years ago: Modern humans reach Europe.
Early history of our ancestral home
Archaeological digs have shown that hominids have lived in Botswana for around two million years. Stone tools and fauna remains have shown that all areas of the country were inhabited at least 400,000 years ago. In October 2019, researchers reported that Botswana was the birthplace of all modern humans about 200,000 years ago. Evidence left by modern humans such as cave paintings are about 73,000 years old. The original inhabitants of southern Africa were the Bushmen (San) and Khoi peoples. Both speak Khoisan languages and hunted, gathered, and traded over long distances. When cattle were first introduced about 2000 years ago into southern Africa, pastoralism became a major feature of the economy, since the region had large grasslands free of tsetse fly.
It is unclear when Bantu-speaking peoples first moved into the country from the north, although AD 600 seems to be a consensus estimate. In that era, the ancestors of the modern-day Kalanga moved into what is now the north-eastern areas of the country. These proto-Kalanga were closely connected to states in Zimbabwe as well as to the Mapungubwe state. These states, located outside of current Botswana’s borders, appear to have kept massive cattle herds in what is now the Central District—apparently at numbers approaching modern cattle density. This massive cattle-raising complex prospered until 1300 AD or so, and seems to have regressed following the collapse of Mapungubwe. During this era, the first Tswana-speaking groups, the Bakgalagadi, moved into the southern areas of the Kalahari. All these various peoples were connected to trade routes that ran via the Limpopo River to the Indian Ocean, and trade goods from Asia such as beads made their way to Botswana most likely in exchange for ivory, gold, and rhinoceros horn.
The arrival of the ancestors of the Tswana-speakers who came to control the region has yet to be dated precisely. Members of the Bakwena, a chieftaincy under a legendary leader named Kgabo II, made their way into the southern Kalahari by AD 1500, at the latest, and his people drove the Bakgalagadi inhabitants west into the desert. Over the years, several offshoots of the Bakwena moved into adjoining territories. The Bangwaketse occupied areas to the west, while the Bangwato moved northeast into formerly Kalanga areas. Not long afterwards, a Bangwato offshoot known as the Batawana migrated into the Okavango Delta, probably in the 1790s.
William Dewan Burns, owner of Botswana Trek Photographic Safari and Adventure visited Jack’s Camp with a small group of media and learned much more about the Makgadikgadi -our ancestral home and its special place in our shared human evolution. Jack’s Camp has been listed as one of the top 5 safari camps in Africa.
To plan a safari and learn more, please contact William Dewan Burns at Botswana Trek Photographic Safari and Adventure. +1 (808) 895-1512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Our safari which included Jacks Camp (now recently renovated) is also available on the Amateur Traveler podcast.