Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 6, 2011

The hunter-gatherers within us


Lesley-Ann Brandt

One of the reasons that the HGDP populations are weighted toward indigenous groups is that there was the understanding that these populations may not be long for the world in their current form. But the Taino genome reconstruction illustrates that even if populations are no longer with us…they are still within us. With that in mind I decided to do some quick “back-of-the-envelope” calculations in relation to the Khoisan people of southern Africa. These are the descendants of the populations which were presumably there before the Bantu, and the basal relationship of the Bushmen to other human lineages is probably a partial testament to their long term residence in this region of Africa.

There are about 300,000 speakers of Khoisan languages left (mostly in South Africa and Namibia). These individuals are not all unmixed in their ancestry. If you look at some of the public genotypes available you can find Bantu African and European ancestry in Bushmen (the European may have come from Griqua). There are about 4 million Cape Coloureds and 8 million Xhosa. Both of these groups have some Khoisan ancestry. Let’s assume that the Cape Coloured are 20% Khoisan, and the Xhosa are 10% Khoisan. This is probably a moderately conservative, but I think it’s close from what I’ve seen. Multiplying that out you get 1.6 million Khoisan represented by the Cape Coloured and the Xhosa. That’s a ratio of over 5:1 in terms of the ancestral components attributed to Khoisan in modern populations being in those groups which don’t identify as Khoisan. This is probably a major underestimate, as other Bantu populations besides the Xhosa likely have some Khoisan ancestry, though less.


This came to mind because I recently watched Spartacus: Blood and Sand with some friends (or at least the first season). We were curious about the background of one of the characters, Lesley-Ann Brandt. From her blog you can find out this about her ethnic background:

You’re probably still asking what makes a “Coloured”, “Coloured”. Well like the name suggests, it is someone of many colours. My heritage consists of German, ( my last name), Indian, British and Spanish. My mother has the Indian, but is very fair and could be mistaken for white if you’ve never met her or you’re not from South Africa.

Her father however was a very dark man with Indian heritage. Her mother had an olive complexion. My father on the other hand has mostly European heritage, (a white German grandfather on his fathers side and a white British Grandfather and Spanish grandmother on his mothers side), but looks much darker than me. On my dad’s side, my grandfather had really dark olive colouring with green eyes and my grandmother was often mistaken as white during Apartheid. She would often sneak into white only grocery stores to buy food because no one really questioned her.

With all due respect to Ms. Brandt, just looking at her face and knowing that she’s Cape Coloured, her Khoisan ancestry seems rather clear to me in her features. From what I have read there’s some stigma associated with this int the Coloured community, or was, so perhaps that is why she seems to be ignorant of it, and attributes her visible non-white features to her Indian ancestry. Her father’s ancestry in particular doesn’t make sense in light of the phenotype she’s attributing to him.

But none of this really matters now. Genotyping would, and will, clear all of these issues up. Well, at least the scientific ones.

Image credits: Ian Beatty and Lesley-Ann Brandt.

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