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Genomics and African Queens: Diversity Within Ethiopian Genomes Reveals Imprints of Historical Events

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on June 21, 2012

Researchers have started to unveil the genetic heritage of Ethiopian populations, who are among the most diverse in the world, and lie at the gateway from Africa. They found that the genomes of some Ethiopian populations bear striking similarities to those of populations in Israel and Syria, a potential genetic legacy of the Queen of Sheba and her companions.

The team detected mixing between some Ethiopians and non-African populations dating to approximately 3,000 years ago. The origin and date of this genomic admixture, along with previous linguistic studies, is consistent with the legend of the Queen of Sheba, who according to the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast book had a child with King Solomon from Israel and is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an.

Ethiopia is situated in the horn of Africa, and has often been regarded as one of the gateways from Africa to the rest of the world. The Ethiopian region itself has the longest fossil record of human history anywhere in the world. Studying population genetics within this diverse region could help us to understand the origin of the first humans.

“From their geographic location, it is logical to think that migration out of Africa 60,000 years ago began in either Ethiopia or Egypt. Little was previously known about the populations inhabiting the North-East African region from a genomic perspective. This is the first genome study on a representative panel of Ethiopian populations,” explains Luca Pagani, first author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Cambridge. “We wanted to compare the genome of Ethiopians with other Africans to provide an essential piece to the African — and world — genetic jigsaw.”

They found that the Ethiopian genome is not as ancient as was previously thought and less ancient than the genomes of some Southern African populations. There were also links with other populations.

“We found that some Ethiopians have 40-50% of their genome closer to the genomes of populations outside of Africa, while the remaining half of their genome is closer to populations within the African continent,” says Dr Toomas Kivisild, co-author from the University of Cambridge. “We calculated genetic distances and found that these non-African regions of the genome are closest to populations in Egypt, Israel and Syria, rather than to the neighbouring Yemeni and Arabs.”

The team found that these two groups of African and non-African people mixed approximately 3,000 years ago, well before the historically-documented Islamic expansions and the colonial period of the last centuries.

An earlier study found that Ethio-Semitic, an Ethiopian language belonging to a linguistic family primarily spoken in the Middle East, split from the main Semitic group 3,000 years ago, around the same time as the non-African genomic component arrived in Ethiopia. All this evidence combined fits the time and locations of the legend of the Queen of Sheba, which describes the encounter of the Ethiopian Queen and King Solomon.

“None of this research would have been possible without the superb fieldwork of our Ethiopian colleagues Professor Endashaw Bekele and Dr Ayele Tarekegn over many years. The outstanding genetic diversity present within the peoples of Ethiopia is a rich resource that will contribute greatly, both to our understanding of human evolution and the development of personalised medicine.” says Dr Neil Bradman, co-lead author from UCL (University College London). “The Ethiopian Government has a practice of encouraging genetic research, a policy that bodes well for the future.”

“Our research gives insights into important evolutionary questions,” says Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, co-lead author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “We see imprints of historical events on top of much more ancient prehistoric ones that together create a region of rich culture and genetic diversity. The next step for our research has to be to sequence the entire genomes, rather than read individual letters, of both Ethiopian people and others to really understand human origins and the out-of-Africa migration.”

Source: ScienceDaily

Images: courtesy of artist Addis Gebru

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4 Responses to “Genomics and African Queens: Diversity Within Ethiopian Genomes Reveals Imprints of Historical Events”

  1. Joseph Biddulph (Pontypridd, Cymru. Proud member of St Dyfrig's Catholic Parish) said

    I’m sorry, but for a “scientific” report, this makes too many assumptions. What, for instance, is the “African” element, and how is it defined? – considering that the rest of Africa outside Ethiopia is extremely diverse and the patterns of migration, linguistic and ethnic identity and so on are scarcely established. Is this just an assumption based on skin colour? Likewise “Syrian” or Near Eastern character – this can only be specified if every other group on the planet has been examined under identical criteria to establish if the “Syrian” characteristic is actually specifically Syrian. If the theory of “out-of-Africa migration” for the entire human race (we presume) has any validity, then the Ethiopian “mixture” from 3000 years before the present is hardly relevant. I cannot pretend to any expertise in genomes, but the linguistics also require a bit of tidying-up – viz. the claim that the distinct nature of the Ethio-Semitic languages is 3000 years old. Since a lot of Semitic linguistics seems still to be based on the ideas of Driver, etc., my first instinct is to question the DATE, the second is to point out that the South Arabian languages might also be included in the class “Ethio-Semitic” without any specific location in Ethiopia being necessary. Thirdly, of course, languages can be adopted freely despite ethnic origin, and if the Agaw languages represent the aboriginal speech of e.g. the Shoan Highlands, it might be more reasonable to demonstrate the Asiatic origin of the Agaw speakers at that date, rather than attempt to throw back the widespread use of Ge’ez to such an early period. Of course, the traditions contained in Kebra Negast record that a SINGLE Asiatic Semite, Menelik, was involved in the kingship, yet the “mixture” implies a substantial proportion of the total population of e.g. Shoa (not in an early period, as far as I know, a part of the Axumite kingdom) of Asiatic origin circa 3000 years ago. Edward Ullendorff in THE ETHIOPIANS reckoned on approximately 40 per cent of the population of the then Empire (1960) of “Galla” (Oromi) origin: one would quite naturally expect that in 2012 this “African” element (if it is so defined) might “slew” the results, since a large number of Ethiopians must have an Oromi ancestor, even if very much identified as Amhara or Tigrean today. This of course would have made the “Asian-Semitic” element in the pre-Oromi period more important still – which would itself call into question some of the initial assumptions made! There seems to be an underlying expectation that because Ethiopia is situated in Africa, the dominant element must conform to some generalisation made for non-Ethiopian Africa – hence the “Syrian” element is the one that causes surprise – but even in the Africa of today we would hardly apply this criterion to e.g. the fair-skinned Berbers of the Moroccan Riff (who have been there throughout recorded history). I expect however that we could take almost any distinct people of Africa and find that they do not conform as closely as was pre-supposed to a generalised “norm” – in which case, the scientific data may be first class, but the “pre-supposing” requires a lot of work done on it! To my mind, the data as presented here neither proves nor disproves any proposition that the Ethiopians came from “Syria” 3000 years ago. It may equally be used to indicate that the “Syrians” came from Ethiopia, for instance.

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