Origins and genetic diversity of pygmy hunter-gatherers from Western Central Africa

Curr Biol. 2009 Feb 24;19(4):312-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.12.049. Epub 2009 Feb 5.


Central Africa is currently peopled by numerous sedentary agriculturalist populations neighboring the largest group of mobile hunter-gatherers, the Pygmies [1-3]. Although archeological remains attest to Homo sapiens' presence in the Congo Basin for at least 30,000 years, the demographic history of these groups, including divergence and admixture, remains widely unknown [4-6]. Moreover, it is still debated whether common history or convergent adaptation to a forest environment resulted in the short stature characterizing the pygmies [2, 7]. We genotyped 604 individuals at 28 autosomal tetranucleotide microsatellite loci in 12 nonpygmy and 9 neighboring pygmy populations. We found a high level of genetic heterogeneity among Western Central African pygmies, as well as evidence of heterogeneous levels of asymmetrical gene flow from nonpygmies to pygmies, consistent with the variable sociocultural barriers against intermarriages. Using approximate Bayesian computation (ABC) methods [8], we compared several historical scenarios. The most likely points toward a unique ancestral pygmy population that diversified approximately 2800 years ago, contemporarily with the Neolithic expansion of nonpygmy agriculturalists [9, 10]. Our results show that recent isolation, genetic drift, and heterogeneous admixture enabled a rapid and substantial genetic differentiation among Western Central African pygmies. Such an admixture pattern is consistent with the various sociocultural behaviors related to intermariages between pygmies and nonpygmies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Central
  • Africa, Western
  • African Continental Ancestry Group / genetics*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Behavior / physiology*
  • Genetic Drift
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA