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African pygmies diverged from other humans 60,000 years ago

Around 60,000 years ago the ancestors of modern African Pygmies, known worldwide for their small-stature, separated from local farmer populations, according to new genetic research published in PLoS Genetics.

The geneticists, led by Lluis Quintana-Murci, looked at the genetic profiles of twelve populations and compared them with farmers across Africa. With the help of simulations the scientists arrived at 60,000 years ago for the probable divergence for Africa Pygmies. The finding corresponds well with prehistory: 60,000 years ago was an important period for human migrations both in and outside Africa.

The researchers also explored a split within the African Pygmy community. Currently, African Pygmies survive in two distinct groups: Western and Eastern Pygmies. Quintana-Murci and his team found that the split between these groups occurred around 20,000 years ago, when a period of climate change led to the Pygmy’s rainforest habitat retreating into ‘refugia’, or small refuges of surviving rainforest, before expanding outward again.

“[African Pygmies] have probably inherited their distinctive shared physical traits, such as low height, from a common ancestor, rather than by convergent adaptation to the rainforest,” said Etienne Patin, one of the study’s leading authors. To further uncover the origins and prehistory of African Pygmies, the researchers state that complete genome-wide profiles of various populations are required.

‘African Pygmy’ is a term used to denote a number of ethnic groups with varying cultures, traditions, and languages. However, pygmies must have an average male height of under 155 centimeters. Pygmies occur worldwide, including populations in the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Bolivia.

African Pygmies have suffered greatly in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the nation’s devastating civil war. The Mbuti tribe has claimed that both sides of the war committed genocide against its people, including cannibalization . There have also been widespread reports of Pygmies being used as slaves by the Bantu peoples.

CITATION: Patin E, Laval G, Barreiro LB, Salas A, Semino O, et al. (2009) Inferring the Demographic History of African Farmers and Pygmy Hunter-Gatherers Using a Multilocus Resequencing Data Set. PLoS Genet 5(4): e1000448. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000448

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