First Out of Africa

2001, Science  -  49 min Leave a Comment
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On a cluster of islands deep in a Bay of Bengal live a group of people who have hidden away from the modern world. For centuries they fought off anyone who tried to intrude. Marco Polo called them cannibals. Their origins are a mystery. Where they came from, how long they have been there, who they are... no one knows. But could these islanders hold the key to the mystery of our own origins? An expedition sets out to the Andaman Islands to unravel the secrets of the people whose past could solve the riddle of human evolution.

The ancient tribes of the Andaman's have always mystified explorers. They live in the heart of South-East Asia, yet are very small and very dark-skinned. They look like African pygmies. How or when they came to these islands is a puzzle. It is thought they may have been washed ashore there hundreds of years ago from a slave ship, but new evidence suggests another explanation. When biochemist, Dr. Erika Hagelberg, extracted DNA from Andaman hair samples gathered a hundred years ago she realized that the Andaman islanders could be far more important than anyone have ever imagined.

She had discovered what seemed to be a group of hunter-gatherers caught in a time warp. Believing that the Andaman islanders could even be the living ancestors of modern mankind, she set out to solve the mystery of their origin. She realized their past could be a vital link to understanding the evolution of modern man.

Biochemist Erika Hagelberg has been involved in a number of high-profile forensic identification cases, but this story begins when she came across a huge collection of hair samples gathering dust in a drawer. They have been brought back from the Andaman Islands by the pioneering anthropologist Radcliffe Brown in 1908. Over the centuries explorers have collected tons of body parts which lie forgotten in museum stores.

Until techniques for extracting DNA from bones and hair were developed they appeared completely valueless. When Radcliffe Brown visited the islands early in the 20th century he brought back an enormous amount of material. But even he never solved the mystery of how the people who resembled African pygmies had ended up in Asia.