Routes to Roots: A Genomic Walk Into the Past with Professor Himla Soodyall

A Genomic Walk Into the Past – 25th July 2011

It was standing room only when Professor Himla Soodyall addressed an eager group of teachers, school children, varsity students and members of the general public at the Olwazini Discovery Centre in Pietermaritzburg.

Talking on the theme Routes to Roots: A genomic walk into the past, and punctuating her simple but powerful explanations with slides and short videos, Prof Soodyall explained how DNA samples taken from people living all over the world are helping us understand how humans populated the globe – a story of 150 000 years.

The event was held in celebration of World Population Day to raise awareness and understanding of how humans have spread out across the world – the total number is expected to reach 7 billion during 2011.

After explaining a little of the science behind Genetic Ancestry, Prof Soodyall went on to relate stories which showed how people’s understanding of their identity was impacted on by new knowledge of their genetic history. She included video of, among others, former president Nelson Mandela receiving news of his genetic ancestry test results and told the story of recent research findings of the Karretjie People in the Northern Cape Province who trace their lineage directly to the oldest known group of Homo sapiens – or modern humans like you and I.

Questions and comments after the talk deepened understanding of the topic and reinforced the notion that as the people of the world, we have far more in common with one another, than differences. The closing comment by one audience member, much to the delight of Professor Albert Modi of the Moses Kotane Institute, was that he felt he was no longer a visitor to Africa – but rather that he had returning home from a long time in exile.

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