Meryl Streep is African. So are we

Modern humans evolved in east Africa, roughly where Tanzania and Kenya are today, between 50,000 and 65,000 years ago.

 |  3-minute read |   19-02-2016
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Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep was slammed on social media recently for saying: "We're all Africans, really."

She was responding during the Berlin Film Festival last week to the controversy over all-white Oscars: for years there hasn't been an African-American Oscar winner. The 2016 awards ceremony on February 28 won't change that. All the nominees and jury members are white - or European-Americans, a term that has become popular in the racially-charged US presidential elections. 

So what did Streep really mean? Here's what she said: "There is core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all we're all from Africa originally. Berliners, we're all Africans, really."

Across the world, flak followed. One said acidly: "You'd think Meryl Streep would be smarter than to say, 'We're all Africans, really' in any context, but alas."

But Streep of course is right: we, really, are all Africans.

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved in east Africa, roughly where Tanzania and Kenya are today, between 50,000 and 65,000 years ago. The vast movement and migrations of humans now began. One stream of migrants went north from Africa to Europe. As they adapted to colder climes and lesser sunlight, genetic mutations took place. Melanin cells which give skin its colour diminished, resulting in pale-skinned people. Hair follicles get their colour from melanin too: they turn lighter and fairer as melanin cells reduce. Lack of sunlight in Europe and lower melanin concentration led to the iris turning from brown to grey and then blue.

Hence the blonde, pale-skinned, blue-eyed north European of today - Meryl Streep's ancestor.

As a recent report says: "Scientists have uncovered an unknown chapter of human history - a major population turnover in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age. The new data shows the mitochondrial DNA of three individuals who lived in present-day Belgium and France before the coldest period in the last Ice Age belonged to haplogroup M. This is remarkable because haplogroup M is effectively absent in modern Europeans but is common in modern Asians, Australasians and Native Americans. The researchers said the discovery now suggests that all non-Africans dispersed rapidly from a single population, at a time they place around 50,000 years ago." 

A second stream of humans from east Africa set off on a longer route that took them across the Eurasian land bridge to north Asia, today's China and Mongolia. Genetic mutation again occurred. Due to "snow glare" (where there is extreme cold but also lots of sunlight), a second protective skin developed over the eyelids. This mutation took place over thousands of years and resulted in the narrower eyes of the Chinese and their racial derivatives in east Asia - from Vietnam to Korea. 

A third stream of migrants from east Africa traversed across the Middle-East, the Khyber Pass and the Indian subcontinent. Over the millennia, some of these early humans landed up, through rudimentary sea rafts, in Indonesia and Australia. They carried with them their African genes. Aborigines in Australia developed their genetic traits in a milder climate, similar to east Africa, with physical characteristics resembling their ancestors.

By around 15,000 BC, four races had acquired their current genetic features: Europeans ("Caucasoids"), north Asians ("Mongoloids"), Aborigines ("Australoids") and the original Africans ("Negroids").

These are the academic terms for the four races that today inhabit the world. Over the last 10,000 years more migratory movements and inter-breeding have led to sub-racial groups. In the Americas, indigenous (Red) Indians and Aztec Indians are related to peoples who crossed over millennia ago from north Asia across the Bering land strip (now the Bering sea strait) in Russia to North America and thence to South America.

In the Indian subcontinent, a thoroughfare between the west and east, genetic mingling was particularly widespread. Hence the diversity of colour and facial features from Kashmir to Kerala, Tripura to Tamil Nadu.

Meryl Streep was right: We are all Africans. Really.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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