It’s been a banner week for African women, prehistoric and modern. A new DNA study based on mitochondrial DNA samples from over a thousand Tanzania citizens has confirmed the oldest known DNA lineages are those of East Afticans, including the Sandawe, Datog, Burunge and Gorowaa peoples there. The latter two groups are known to have migrated to Tanzania from Ethiopia within the last 5,000 years. Mitochondrial DNA from these tribes, which is passes only from mothers to offspring, had the highest variation in these groups, which would occur if they had had the longest time to undergo mutation compared to other populations. “They are showing really deep, old lineages with lots of diversity. They appear to be the oldest lineages identified in Africa to date,” said Dr. Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Maryland, who led the research.
Other recently announced work suggests the African women may have made not only babies but stone tools as well, a role which had often been thought to be the exclusive domain of prehistoric men. “There has always been this image of `man the toolmaker’ because it’s generally perceived by the public, and many archaeologists, that males were the ones who made stone tools,” said Steve Brandt of the University of Florida. “But we found that among one ethnic group, the Konso of Ethiopia, women dominate the activity.” Modern Konso women create a stone tool called a scraper to clean animal hides to be made into bedding and clothing. In the study described in the September/October issue of Archaeology magazine, the UF researchers identified 119 Konso hide workers who used flaked stone, glass or iron to scrape hides. Seventy-five percent of the hide workers were women, and most – 73 percent – were 40 or older. Members of this group are born into the hide-working profession and remain locked into it. The researchers see no reason why such a woman-dominated craft could not have been the norm thousands of years ago.