Bio-archaeology is the study of biological remains found at sites of archaeological interest. It is an interdisciplinary science employing different scientific fields including physical anthropology, geography, archaeology and genetics. Genetic analysis includes ancient DNA (aDNA) studies, now a specialised field in genetics. This approach was used to analyse human skeletal material of eight individuals from various Iron Age archaeological sites in southern Africa. Included in this sample is a naturally mummified individual from Tuli, in Botswana. The context of the specimens found in the Limpopo Province (Thulamela), as well as their cultural links with the Zimbabwe Culture Complex (which includes Mapungubwe and Khami) suggests that some gene exchange might have occurred. While this is not the first aDNA study on southern African samples, it is the first aDNA study based on southern African Iron Age human individuals and also included a naturally mummified individual.
Morphometric and morphological analyses have indicated the age at death, sex and health status of the individuals, and the context in which they were found has helped in assessing their cultural affinity. Bone samples were analysed in a specialized aDNA laboratory at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine in Switzerland. Following DNA extraction, ancestry-specific mitochondrial DNA was amplified from all samples and was compared to that of modern sub-Saharan Africans whose data were accessed from GenBank.
Some individuals show (maternal) genetic similarities to present-day Sotho/Tswana groups. The male individual from Thulamela aligns somewhat more with the groups from the west and the female with the eastern peoples. Two Early Iron Age individuals from Happy Rest presented some similarities to the Khoesan peoples. Genetic-sex determination efforts were inconclusive for all individuals.
The purpose of this study was to place the Thulamela individuals within the context of the genetic diversity in South Africa. It was noted that the introduction of genetic material from the early Sotho/Tswana was gradual in the case of Thulamela. Two other individuals from Happy Rest, who were contemporaries of each other, showed very little genetic variation and it can be said that their maternal DNA was of the same (possibly Khoesan) origin. Further resolution in haplotype assignment will be done in future. These temporally and spatially dispersed individuals can only provide a glimpse into the population interactions of the Iron Age that may have partially shaped the immense genetic diversity of present-day southern Africa.