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Africa’s Oldest DNA Is Helping Address Science’s Racial Bias

HUMAN HISTORY IS written in DNA. Where our ancestors lived and who they loved—the story is right there if we can see into their genes. The trouble is that the ravages of climate and time degrade DNA, making its secrets harder and harder to detect. Gradually, however, scientists have begun to peer back through time by sequencing ancient DNA. In 2016, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology pieced together DNA from a skeleton found in a cave in northern Spain. The human ancestor it was from lived more than 430,000 years ago.

Other ancient DNA discoveries have filled in our knowledge of humanity’s distant past. A Siberian cave yielded up a bone that DNA analysis revealed belonged to a woman from 90,000 years ago who was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan. Another skeleton from the same cave gave us Neanderthal DNA from 120,000 years ago. But all of this DNA has something in common: Almost all of it comes from Europe and Asia. The oldest DNA from sub-Saharan Africa—the place where the whole human story began—dates back to less than 10,000 years ago.

Now a new discovery of the oldest African DNA is pushing back against this bias, and in the process revealing how our ancestors lived and moved around the continent tens of thousands of years ago.

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