Monday, October 15, 2012

Questions on the Prehistory of Nilo-Saharans

Karkur Talh in Southwestern Egypt

Over the Summer, I received an email from "Asten", in which he described to me his experience with some surprising preconceptions out there in blog land about the origin of Nilo-Saharan speakers.  It's obviously Fall now, but I haven't had a chance to get back to this blog until now.  In any case, Asten's comments provide much food for thought regarding the prehistory of Nilo-Saharans and what genetic research may as yet lend to the topic:

Asten >  I have noticed the lack of blogging content about Nilo-Saharan and Nilo Saharan speakers.  The background of my conclusion starts somewhat like this - Initially I had been reading a lot about E1b1~ lineages.  I focused on the ancestral lineages in East Africa, this lead me to study the dna of East African Afroasiatic speakers.  Much of these topics peaked with the publications by Cruciani and Tishkoff.  In studying Horn African groups there is a noticeable trend indicating their languages Cushitic/Omotic have a more northern source as Proto-AA is supposed to have coalesced somewhere around the Sudanese/Egyptian Red Sea coast.  Also some of the most important Male lineages : E-M78 and its V32 and V22 subclades are thought to have back-migrated from this general area.  These facts then led me to study more on Egypt.  As we know Egypt has a wealth of physical remains and culture to study.  One thing I noticed though, when studying Nile Valley topics is  some of the data, particularlry the early data in both Sudan and Egypt led not to Afrasians but to Nilo-Saharan speakers.

Marnie > It's odd that there is not more follow up on the Cruciani and Tishkoff papers regarding Nilo-Saharans.  There have been a number of very good genetic papers in the last few years on West Africa.  Ethiopian groups, including a few Nilo-Sahara speakers, were covered in the June paper on Ethiopian genetic diversity (link). There is also an interesting recent paper on the Maasai (link).  Many of the papers on Africa of the last year or so have focused on the ultra hot topic of human origins (link) and in so doing, have studied the San, Hadza and Sandawe.  However, to my knowledge, there has not been a paper to specifically follow up on the Nilo-Saharan studies of the 2009 Tishkoff paper "The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans" (link).

Asten > It seemed as if I was stumbling on to something that was not to widely discussed on the web but was noted quite frequently in books.  Now I have brought up some of these topics on a few message boards and people think I am talking about fringe theories.  After much research I am of the opinion that Nilo-Saharan has an origin more northern than the Middle Nile.  Possible somewhere as far North as Southern Egypt.  Many maps by different linguists show the distribution of Nilo-Saharan being much wider and more northern than they are today:

(Marnie's note > The above map is from Chistopher Ehret's chapter in the Africa:  Food, Metal and Towns book (see sidebar).)

(Marnie's note > The above map is from Roger's Blench's chapter in the Africa:  Food, Metal and Towns book.)

Marnie > Note that there is a difference in the Ehret and Blench maps.  However, recent research is beginning to support the Ehret map.

Asten > When on the topic of cattle domestication, I notice again most publications seemed to hint at this being the ancient practice of Nilo-Saharan speakers both in the Nile Valley, the Sahara as well as the western Deserts of Egypt.  Some authors say the pysical remains of the population should be identified as some type of Proto-Nilotic or Nilo-Saharans.  Many sites of cattle early domestication (and early pottery) are at the same latitude as Southern and Middle Egypt.  I don't know what this says as far as Origin but I do think this should be more taken into consideration as far as commenting on the historical distribution.

Marnie > There is a lot of evidence that Southern Egypt during the Holocene Climatic Optimum was populated by Nilo-Saharan speakers or perhaps by both Nilo-Saharan speakers and Cushitic/Omotic speakers.  The work of Christopher Ehret does point to the presence of  Nilo-Saharans at the southern edge of Egypt.  The work of Tishkoff et al (link) indicates a long pattern of intermarriage between some Cushitic/Omotic speakers with Nilo-Saharans. If you look at the rock art of Karkur Tahl, in the dessert at the very southwestern edge of  Egypt, you see drawings of people who share characteristics, hunting styles, weapons and dress with groups who today live further south and are both Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic/Omotic speakers.  The linguistic evidence also supports the notion that proto-Nilo-Saharans and/or proto-Cushitic/Omotic speakers crossed into Southern Egypt during the Holocene Climatic Optimum (link).  The definitive answer as to whether the occupants of sites such as Karkur Tahl were proto-Nilo Saharan and/or proto-Cushitic/Omotic speakers remains an open question.

Marnie > As far as fringe theories go, there has been much opposition to the work of Chris Ehret, some of which has been discussed on this blog.  Here, for instance.  However, in spite of the objections to his work, Ehret's linguistic research has been supported by the Tishkoff genetic research and by recent rock art finds at Karkur Tahl . . . fringe theorists notwithstanding.

Asten > When it comes to DNA it could be a bit more iffy.  Of course we cannot take the DNA of Modern nor ancient individuals and know what language they spoke.  What we can do is show which speakers have a similar Y, mtdna, or autosomal profile to the individuals in question.  I do not know if you are familiar with the JAMA Study on the 18th Dynasty?  The full text is here:

Marnie > I'm not familiar with this study, but I will have a look.

Asten > DNA Tribes took that available STR information and ran it through their population databased and the results are here:

Asten > Most people take this with a grain of salt as the STR's used are low (8).  After a long discussion I am convinced some of the matches are inidcative of Nilo-Saharan ancestry - Particularly the "Great Lakes" scores. Another thing that supports it is the distribution of A3b2, a very common lineage in Nilo-Saharan speakers. This was a surprising find for me ealier this year:

Marnie >  Asten, thanks very much for the links to these stunning papers on the genetics of the Egyptian Amarna Pharaohs.  Hopefully, there will be more research soon to unravel the identity of the innovative and courageous peoples who pushed into the Sahara as the first rains began to fall over 10,000 years ago.  The Nilo-Saharans, venturing forth from their stronghold near Atbara, were surely one group of these intrepid people.

Update (October 16th, 2012):  In this discussion about Nilo-Saharan genetics, it should be pointed out that the Dinka, a Nilo-Saharan people who today live in the Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan, were included as a population in the recent paper "The genetic prehistory of southern Africa", Pickrell et al (link).  The Dinka are a Nilo-Saharan people and are shown in this paper on the Treemix diagram, Figure 3.  This Treemix diagram supports the hypothesis of some linguists that the Dinka, as a proxy for Nilo-Saharans, have as their close relative, the Yorubans (a proxy for most West Africans.)   No doubt, the Pickrell team will soon have a closer look at the relationship between West Africans and Nilo-Saharans, and also, the possible associations between these two groups to Eurasians, North Africans and other East African groups.

Related Posts:

Mentuhotep II Expedition to Jebel Uweinat (link)
Assessing Gilf Kebir Cultural Transmission (link)
Origins of Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic Speakers (link)
The Transition to Food Production (link)
Tishkoff on the Origins of Pastoralism in Africa (link)
Locating Early Nilo-Saharan Societies (link)
The onset of food production among Proto-Northern Sudanic speakers (link)
Early, possibly predomestication divergence of N'dama cattle (link)
Kerma et les débuts du Néolithique Africain (link)
The Saharo-Sahelian Peoples and the Beginnings of Crop Cultivation (link)
Chris Ehret Book:  The Civilizations of Africa (link)
Karkur Talh:  An Ancient Cattle Trail (link)

Related Papers:

The genetic prehistory of southern Africa (link)

The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans (link)

Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun's Family (link)
(with related DNA tribes matching for similar modern populations (link))

Genetic Patterns of Y-chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Variation, with Implications to the Peopling of the Sudan (link)

Ethiopian Genetic Diversity Reveals Linguistic Stratification and ... (link)
(includes genetic analysis of  Nilo-Saharan, Omotic and Cushitic speakers)

Working toward a synthesis of archaeology, linguistic, and genetic ... (link)
(mentions the relationship between Nilo-Saharan speakers and Niger-Kordofanian speakers)

Kerma et les débuts du Néolithique Africain (link)
(discusses the debut of the Neolithic in Nubia)

Early, possibly predomestication divergence of N'dama cattle (link)
(autosomal study of cattle that indicates the genetic divergence of N'dama cattle from other Taurine breeds.)

Assessing Gilf Kebir Cultural Transmission (link)
(discusses Gilf Kebir Rock art with respect to its connection with Nile societies at the end of the Holocene Climatic Optimum.)

Karkur Talh:  An Ancient Cattle Trail (link)
(examines different rock art styles along a cattle trail at Karkur Talh)

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