Rainforest hunter-gatherers are not primitive or primal

Recently I had a discussion with a friend that I suspect the “tropical pygmy” phenotype you see Central Africa and Southeast Asia is a pretty recent development. So this sort of assertion, “The Sentinelese tribe have remained on their North Sentinel Island, almost completely uncontacted for nearly 60,000 years…” is probably wrong. First, the Sentinelese probably arrived with other Andaman peoples during the Pleistocene from mainland Southeast Asia when the archipelago may have been connected to the mainland due to low sea levels.

Second, the small size of many tropical hunter-gatherer populations may simply be due to the difficulty of surviving in this environment. Though rainforests are lush, humans can’t access a lot of it, and small animals tend to require more energy to catch than is justified by how much meat they provide.

Genomics is now on the case: Polygenic adaptation and convergent evolution across both growth and cardiac genetic pathways in African and Asian rainforest hunter-gatherers:

Different human populations facing similar environmental challenges have sometimes evolved convergent biological adaptations, for example hypoxia resistance at high altitudes and depigmented skin in northern latitudes on separate continents. The pygmy phenotype (small adult body size), a characteristic of hunter-gatherer populations inhabiting both African and Asian tropical rainforests, is often highlighted as another case of convergent adaptation in humans. However, the degree to which phenotypic convergence in this polygenic trait is due to convergent vs. population-specific genetic changes is unknown. To address this question, we analyzed high-coverage sequence data from the protein-coding portion of the genomes (exomes) of two pairs of populations, Batwa rainforest hunter-gatherers and neighboring Bakiga agriculturalists from Uganda, and Andamanese rainforest hunter-gatherers (Jarawa and Onge) and Brahmin agriculturalists from India. We observed signatures of convergent positive selection between the Batwa and Andamanese rainforest hunter-gatherers across the set of genes with annotated ‘growth factor binding’ functions (p<0.001). Unexpectedly, for the rainforest groups we also observed convergent and population-specific signatures of positive selection in pathways related to cardiac development (e.g. 'cardiac muscle tissue development'; p=0.003). We hypothesize that the growth hormone sub-responsiveness likely underlying the pygmy phenotype may have led to compensatory changes in cardiac pathways, in which this hormone also plays an essential role. Importantly, we did not observe similar patterns of positive selection on sets of genes associated with either growth or cardiac development in the agriculturalist populations, indicating that our results most likely reflect a history of convergent adaptation to the similar ecology of rainforest hunter-gatherers rather than a more common or general evolutionary pattern for human populations.

A minor note: there is some ethnographic data that the isolated Sentinelese are not as small as the other Andaman Islanders. Some of their small size may simply be due to exposure to diseases and the stress of settlers from the mainland.

2 thoughts on “Rainforest hunter-gatherers are not primitive or primal

  1. The Sentinelese should be an interesting population to sample genetically if or when they do make sustained contact. There’s only a few dozen to maybe a few hundred at most on the island over multiple generations. I hope they don’t disappear through inbreeding depression before that can happen (the estimated population seems to be drifting downwards over time).

  2. “depigmented skin in northern latitudes on separate continents.”

    It surprises me that this is due to convergent evolution. Inuits and the Paleo-Eskimos before them were relatively recent migrants from Northern Asia. Some Northern European populations (Karelia, Finland, the Baltics) likewise have significant Northern Asian admixture.

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