All South Africans are settlers, regardless of their skin colour, and their DNA carries the proof.

So says Dr Wilmot James, head of the African Genome Project, a distinguished academic, sociologist and, more recently, honorary professor of human genetics at the University of Cape Town.

And he says South Africans will soon have a public genetic database, which will show how the country became populated over thousands of years. The African Genome project is supported by local genealogy website

James aims to trace the origins of South Africans “no matter what their language, ethnic origins or skin colour”.

“No one group can lay claim to South Africa. Everyone is a settler, and we will show how people came here in waves of migration.”

Next month he and his colleague, associate professor Himla Soodyall, will do mass genetic testing of Capetonians. Soodyall is the principal medical scientist at the National Health Laboratory Service and is an associate professor in the Division of Human Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand.

James says he expects about 300 people will come for free testing on September 9. The test simply involves swabbing the inside of a person’s cheek.

“This is a public exercise in science and a journey through the history of South Africa,” said James.

The results will be out early next year. The data will be used to map how people migrated here more than 100 000 years ago. They will do similar testing in Johannesburg.

The Africa Genome project aims to fill a gap in the current DNA databases available worldwide and establish the diversity of ancestry in the South African population.

“We do not understand our history well enough and the truth has been modified in many stories,” says James. “South Africa is not the site of human origins. The Sterkfontein caves have evidence of pre-modern humans, but modern man comes from east Africa.”

The Khoi/San moved here from east Africa and, up until 2 000 years ago, people living in southern Africa were brown.

Africa’s black people are originally from the Niger/Congo region.

James says genetic testing will confirm the theory that there is a population in South Africa whose ancestors were from Niger/Congo.

“In fact, there are no real settlers in South Africa, but rather successive waves of immigrants. The ultimate question for us to find an answer to is: Who is an African?

Article by Lynnette Johns

South Africa | 20 August 2007


Who is an African?
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