Newly Discovered Ancient African, ‘Ghost Ancestor’ Changes Human History

High angle view of human skeleton replica in a dirty hole.

New findings, with the help of genetics, are shedding light upon a group of Stone Age humans sharing mysterious DNA, belonging to what scientists are calling a “Ghost Tribe.” And it seems the earliest settlers and migrants of the continent, who have been nearly lost to history, are not what they once appeared to be.

Ancient DNA brings the past into the present. The old idea, presented by academia, was that early peoples who traversed a wide expanse of terrain, including what is now present-day Morocco, were originally Europeans making their way seaward into Asia and the Mediterranean.

But new findings that include examinations of DNA—the oldest ever obtained from Africa—shows that people living, thriving, trading, hunting, and warring across North Africa were actually related to Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans. This new archaeological view suggests that more people were migrating in and out of North Africa than once believed.

Modern DNA Analysis Supplants Old Theories

As of late, scientists have begun putting together a completely different picture of the goings-on in North Africa that has long been accepted by mainstream academia. With the discovery of a tribe and population structure, more ancient than previously thought possible, archaeologists are reluctantly stretching the timeline of history. 

French archaeologist Philippe Lavachery noted that, until very recently, the Grassfields of western Cameroon in central west Africa were an unknown area from the archaeological point of view. Linguists have identified this area as the probable cradle of Bantu languages, a widespread and diverse group of languages spoken by more than a third of Africans today. 

Excavations of Shum Laka rock shelter in Cameroon have unearthed more than 1,000 ceramic shards — nearly 500,000 pieces of lithic materials and 18 human skeletons. And, astoundingly, the site is where some of the oldest African DNA on record has been found. 

While it is not a new idea that Africa is the homeland of our human species, DNA testing shows that we’re older than we look and ideas about great migrations need to be reformed. The findings at Shum Laka rock shelter yielding Stone Age DNA belonging to a mysterious “Ghost Tribe” elevated this unknown population to the position of “earliest settlers in Africa.”

Scientists sequenced DNA from four children buried 8,000 and 3,000 years ago at Shum Laka to reveal some of the oldest DNA recovered from an African tropical context. This affords us a new understanding of the deep ancestral relationships among early Homo sapiens and hominins in sub-Saharan Africa. DNA sequenced from the remains of children reveals ancestry much different from that of most Bantu-speakers today and is closer to central African hunter-gatherers.

David Reich, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School, said, “Our analysis indicates the existence of at least four major deep human lineages that contributed to people living today, and which diverged from each other between about 250,000 and 200,000 years ago.” 

St. Louis University researchers report that these lineages greatly predate what scientists have labeled central and southern African hunter-gatherers and all other modern human populations. And a fourth lineage suggests an unknown “ghost population” was interbreeding with ancient humans, which contributed a small amount of ancestry to both western and eastern Africans, much like the interbreeding of Neanderthals and the Denisovans with ancient humans in Asian and European paths of our ancestors’ diaspora.  

Findings from Shum Laka add to a growing consensus among archaeologists and geneticists that human origins in Africa could have involved divergent, geographically separated populations. Cesare de Filippo, Max Planck Research Group on Comparative Population Linguistics, and his associates reported that the pattern of Y chromosomal variation in sub-Saharan Africa “appears to be driven by the joint effect of both linguistic affiliation and geographical distribution, which to some extent are also correlated.” 

The excavation at Shum Laka


The researchers’ conclusion contradicts the beliefs of earlier scientists who suggested that language shift in southeastern Bantu from Mozambique provided an explanation for their distinctiveness from three other Bantu populations. 

None of the sampled individuals from Shum Laka are closely related to most present-day Bantu-speakers. Instead, they were part of a separate population that lived in the region for at least five millennia and were later almost completely replaced by very different populations whose descendants comprise most people living in Cameroon today.

Overturning Old Scientific Theories

While the science of early human migration and activity may become bogged down in minutiae, the significant takeaway is that as we go forward in time, more and more is revealed about the past. Discoveries arising from ancient DNA continue to push back the timelines of human origins and early civilizations. 

Mainstream archeological views about our history are not set in stone like we’ve been led to believe. The stories of North African populations, with images of nomads and merchant caravans sweeping across the dunes, are legendary, and the region has long been an important crossroads for humanity, but new archaeological findings have elucidated that human history is older than we’ve been taught.

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