Are you related to Mandela?

24 April 2007

The new Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand is inviting South Africans and international tourists to have their DNA tested to determine their ancestry – and have the results exhibited alongside those of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela had his genetic code analysed in 2004, with some surprising results. While he is Xhosa, his mitochondrial DNA shows that he can trace his maternal lineage back to the San Bushmen, the earliest inhabitants of Africa. Mitochondrial DNA is only passed from mother to child and undergoes no genetic mixing, so it’s one of the more common ways to test genetic ancestry.

Mandela’s paternal line, on the other hand, was traced to a group of Africans from the Great Lakes area of East Africa. Most of SA’s African population originated from this region and migrated down the continent’s east coast to settle in South Africa.

The Origins Centre, which opened in Johannesburg last week, is offering the DNA tests to illustrate one of its themes: “All human beings are related genetically and can trace their roots to a common ancestor who lived in Africa.”

DNA will be tested by the National Health Institute, with the results available after two weeks. People can choose to have their ancestry exhibited at the centre.

Rock art and archaeology
But there’s more to the museum than DNA. The Origins Centre brings together a number of institutions that study rock art, palaeontology, anthropology and archaeology.

These include the South African Museum of Rock Art, the James Kitching Gallery, the Rock Art Research Institute, the Bernard Price Institute, the Ringing Rocks Digitising Laboratory and the South African Archaeology Society.

The centre offers stunning museum displays, meeting and lecture facilities, as well as a shop and cafe.

The project was given life in 2000 by then South African Minister of Tourism Valli Moosa and President Thabo Mbeki.

The President had the idea when he went walking in the Drakensberg Mountains and discovered that he knew more about rock art than his guides. He wanted South Africa’s impressive rock art collection and research exhibited to benefit the people of the country.

The primary objective of the centre is to educate the public by promoting the ancient heritage of southern Africa through an appreciation of rock art and the cultures of the people who produced it.

The museum will display its remarkable collection of stone age tools and rock art, evidence of human ancestors living in southern Africa from 2.6-million years ago. There are over 100 000 examples of rock art in Wits University’s archive, probably the largest in the world.

Another focus of the museum will be South Africa’s 4-billion year old fossil record.

The exhibits in the museum are designed to show how human beings became fully modern in sub-Saharan Africa ahead of their journey out of Africa to populate the rest of the world.”

Using the latest technology, the Origins Centre presents its message in an informative and entertaining way. Each section of the museum has interactive touch screens that allow visitors to navigate their way at considerable depth through each subject area.

The displays are available in six languages – English, Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans, French and German, with more to be added each year.

For opening times and tariffs, see the Origins Centre website.

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