- One of the central issues at the upcoming Cairo conference of the Africa Genome Initiative is the origin of Africa's cattle. A multi-disciplinary scientist brainstorming is to take African researchers closer to the mysteries of the early history of the continent, while also trying to contribute to the future development of the basis of African food production.
Under the broad theme 'Genomics and African Society: The Future Health of Africa', top-ranking African and international scientists and a broad range of academics and researchers at the 26-28 March Cairo conference will explore genomic implications in three streams.
In addition to discuss human genomic biotechnology and pharmacy in Africa, the last of the three issues includes Africa's livestock history. The stream focuses on genetic bottlenecks, human migration and history and archaeology in Africa with a focus on the process of "environmental modification" by humans, the domestication of animals and plants and the role of genomics in understanding the patterns of human history.
The cluster - which is convened by Professor Fared El Asmar from Egypt and Professor John Parkington from the University of Cape Town, South Africa - in particular looks at the origin of Africa's cattle. The history of domestic animals in Africa goes back thousands of years and can best be mapped in cooperation between archaeologists and biologists.
While biologists specialised in studying genomes can say much of the evolution of races within species, such as cattle, archaeologists can use ancient traces on human interaction with the cattle to better understand the processes of breeding and the timing of the changes that have occurred.
The ongoing mapping of cattle genes has produced knowledge on the relation between the different cattle races, showing a genetic connection between ancient cattle races of the Middle East and what is understood as the forefathers of African cattle. Research into the cattle genome also enables scientists to map the relation between the different cattle races of Africa, allowing conclusions on which race gave birth to another race.
South African archaeologist and convenor of the conference session, Professor Parkington, however told the 'African Scientist' that "often, the problem with the genetic information ... is that it doesn't have a very explicit historical dimension." At the Cairo conference, scientist therefore will be playing off the genetic record against the archaeological record to produce new and valuable information about Africa's past.
The South African professor says these studies will produce positive results for the continent. "One of the advantages of having all this material on the domestication of animals and plants is that it is beginning to tackle the whole basis of African food production and its geography and limitations," said Mr Parkington, adding that he hopes this research could put Africa "in a better position to move forward and make changes."
The lost of participants of the Cairo conference session assures that discussions will be held within a wide horizon. Professor Parkington is a specialist in Palaeolithic archaeology and contributes with knowledge on rock art and the traditional societies of hunters and gatherers. Mr Parkington is followed by another South African specialist is rock art, Thembi Russell.
The two specialists in rock art and the cultures that produced them are to contribute with their knowledge of early human societies in Africa. They have studied how hunters and gatherers went on to domesticate animals and plants and which challenges this posed on their societies and environment, which again was important for the breeding process.
Co-convenor of the session, Egyptian professor El Asmar, is a specialist of molecular biology and applied genetic engineering. As a specialist in genetic, he is followed by Olivier Hanotte of the International Livestock Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and other biologists. Mr Hanotte's special research interest is genetics of African cattle. These scientists contribute with the hard genetic data.
These specialists are united by several generalists, focusing on the historic interaction between people and their environment in Africa. Anne Muigai of Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University specialises her research on the history of the introduction of domesticates in Africa. Two Cambridge professors meanwhile focus on prehistoric migration routes in an out of Africa.
The biologists, archaeologists and historians make an explosive mix when US linguist Christopher Ehret is added to the team. Together, they have sufficient detail information from each of their fields to map the earliest movements of humans in and out of Africa, their introduction of domestic animals and the migration of peoples and their cattle in Africa through history.
British Professors Marta Lahr and Rob Foley Leverhulme, both specialists in evolutionary studies, through this cooperation have already found important additional data supporting their theories of a first exit of modern man from Africa from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
While the Sinai Peninsula, connecting Egypt with the Middle East, traditionally has been seen as the obvious overland route for the coming and going of people and animals, commodities, seeds and cultural ideas, the British researchers are finding more and more proof of communication across the 50 kilometres of the Red Sea that separate Djibouti and Yemen since the beginning of mankind.
From Yemen to Djibouti, genetic specialists, archaeologists and linguists agree, most of the imported domestic animals and agricultural plants were introduced to Africa. Over the same strait, African species were later brought to Yemen and the rest of the world.
Further population movements throughout Africa, mapped by archaeologists and linguists, explain the further spread of agriculture and cattle raising all over the continent, slowly creating different races adapted to different environments through breeding. Linguists and archaeologists help biologists establish routes and timing while the genetic specialists provide additional hints.
At the Cairo conference, the multi-disciplinary group of scientists in particular are to discuss the role of the Horn of Africa in the import and spread of cattle in Africa. The Djibouti entrance point fits well with archaeological and linguistic traces of an onwards spread.
Professor Parkington told the 'African Scientist' that the main hypothesis now is that domesticated millets and sorghums - indigenous to the highlands of Ethiopia – and domesticated sheep and cattle, moved down south-eastwards "as an approximate package, and it seems from the linguistic evidence to be closely connected to the spread of Bantu-speaking people."
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