Ancient DNA changes what we know about elephants’ evolution

Julien Benoit, University of the Witwatersrand

For a long time, zoologists assumed that there were only two species of elephant: one Asian and one African. Then genetic analyses suggested that the African Elephant could be divided into two distinct species, the African Forest and African Savannah elephants.

Now a new elephant has been added to the mix. The palaeoloxodan antiquus has been extinct for 120 000 years. This elephant roamed Europe and western Asia during the last ice age, about 400 000 years ago. A study of its DNA shows that this supposedly European animal is actually the African forest elephants’ closest relative. Another study by the same team found that at a genetic level, it may even have more in common with the modern African forest elephant than the African savannah elephant.

Paleoloxodon antiquus has been extinct for 120 000 years. changes
Paleoloxodon antiquus has been extinct for 120 000 years.
By Apotea (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


This study changes everything we thought we knew about the evolutionary history and ancestry of modern elephants and their closest relatives. It also shows that the African elephant’s lineage was not confined to Africa; the animals actually went out of the continent, which we didn’t know before. It roamed Europe and – through a lot of interbreeding – left its genetic mark far from its original stomping grounds.

The new find, based on DNA from fossils found in Germany, may also shed light on a DNA discrepancy that has puzzled scientists for some time.

The evolution of elephants

Palaeoloxodon antiquus is known as the straight-tusked elephant because of its distinctive and somewhat bizarre appearance. Its ancestors, the Palaeoloxodon recki, lived in Africa between 3.5 millon and 100 000 years ago. Fossils show that the straight-tusked elephants arrived in Eurasia around 750 000 years ago and that they left Africa through the Middle East.

Julien Benoit elephant DNA
Julien Benoit


Once it reached Europe, the Palaeoloxodon antiquus had to adapt to new conditions. One of its new homes was the island of Sicily and, as is common when large animals settle on an island, it evolved into a dwarf species. This is a way for large animals to deal with the paucity of resources common on islands.

My own research on this dwarf elephant, Palaeoloxodon falconeri has shown that this remarkable species had an exceptionally large brain. In fact, it’s the only animal species ever recorded with a brain size comparable to a human’s.

There’s a problem, though: DNA revealed some years ago that the Palaeoloxodon falconeri wasn’t descended from or related to any of the African elephant species as expected. Its closest relative was actually the Asian elephant.

That made no sense. How could the straight-tusked elephant be related to African elephants and its dwarf descendant be related to Asian elephants? Was that study wrong? The new study, which examined Palaeoloxodon antiquus DNA, could help unravel the mystery.

This is because the Palaeoloxodon antiquus’ DNA appears to be a mixture of many species’ DNA, which would have happened when they interbred. This process, known as admixture, probably occurred once Palaeoloxodon left Africa. That’s how its descendents ended up with Asian elephant DNA, and even DNA from the famous woolly mammoth.

It is possible that a small chunk of the dwarf elephant’s DNA analysed years ago was extracted from a fragment of sequence inherited from the Asian elephant – and its other origins weren’t picked up.

DNA speaks

The ConversationThis new information about elephants’ evolution and history is extremely exciting. It shows that the two modern African elephant species are heirs of a glorious and evolutionary successful past which still survives and speaks through their DNA. Conservation efforts therefore do not only preserve species, they also save the genetic memories of these peaceful giants.

Julien Benoit, Postdoc in Vertebrate Palaeontology, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Journal dedicated to African research launched

By Gilbert Nakweya

[KIGALI, RWANDA] A new peer reviewed, open access inter- and multidisciplinary scientific journal to showcase African research known as Scientific African has been launched.

The journal launched at the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) in Rwanda this week (26-28 March) aims to offer African researchers and scientists the opportunity to publish and showcase their research works.

The journal, according to Benjamin Gyampoh, its Editor-in-Chief, is dedicated to expanding access to African researchers and scientists who are largely facing the problem of not having platforms to publish and showcase their research works.

“This journal will front research on Africa by Africans that finds local solutions to local problems.”

Ron Mobed, Elsevier

The first issue of the multidisciplinary scientific journal is expected to be out in the last quarter of this year. Gyampoh speaking during the launch said that it will help build and strengthen scientific capacity in Africa and increase access to African research.

Africa, according to Gyampoh, has inadequate outlets to showcase African research while policymakers across the continent are increasingly getting interested in publications hence the need to link research to policy to help make good decisions and informed choices.

The journal will be published by the Netherlands-headquartered information analytics organisation specialising in science and health, Elsevier, on behalf of NEF at a subsidised cost.

“This will be an open access journal that aims to provide a modern platform for publishing pan-African research with a particular focus on research supporting UN’s Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development,” says Gyampoh.

Gyampoh says that the journal will be a quarterly publication that attracts subsidised low publishing charges for authors but focusing on excellence and high-quality research.

“This initiative will also provide for authorship training and capacity building,” says Gyampoh adding that a survey of the landscape for esearchers in Africa will be done to help in rigorous and transparent, gender balanced peer review to produce high quality research.

NEF’s president and the chief executive officer of the African Institute for Mathematical Science, Thierry Zomahoun, says that the journal will help advance NEF’s agenda of promoting scientific excellence and partnerships in Africa.

In an interview with SciDev.Net, Ron Mobed, the chief executive officer of Elsevier, said that scientific research output from Africa has tremendously grown in the last five years with the output standing at about 10 per cent growth.

Although there is also growth in the quality of scientific research from Africa, Mobed says, this proportion compared to the continent’s population is still low.

“This journal will front research on Africa by Africans that finds local solutions to local problems,” says Mobed. He notes that the ownership of the journal by NEF, which has a strong network of African scientists, is a good indicator for the sustainability of the journal.

Getrude Ngabirano, the executive secretary of the East African Science and Technology Commission African (EASTECO) says scientists know what to publish but getting platforms to publish their research becomes a problem.

This journal, Ngabirano tells SciDev.Net, will help local scientists showcase their work at a low price because the high cost of publishing in international journals, especially in the global north, is high and prohibits African scientists from publishing.

She lauds the journal’s capacity building segment saying that it will help support African scientists know how to publish high quality research papers.

She encourages increased investment in more Pan-African journals revealing that EASTECO in partnership with the Inter-University Council of East Africa will this year launch a scientific journal to showcase scientific research from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

An appreciation of South Africa’s jazz stalwart Jonas Gwangwa

Gwen Ansell, University of Pretoria

Music galore marked the passing early in 2018 of two South African titans of culture, Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Notable at their memorial events were powerfully moving tributes by two veterans still living: Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa. They have shared stages and the perils of exile with both.

Semenya and Gwangwa’s histories raise a persistent question – why, given the scale of their achievements, are they not more famous? The answer may be rooted in the prominence of live performance over composition: everybody remembers the man or woman on stage. Fewer enquire about who wrote – let alone arranged – the song.

So the 80-year-old Jonas Mosa Gwangwa can command instant warmth and recognition on stage, singing or playing trombone. That music has won him friends and fans around the world. The democratic South African government acknowledged his role in, as they termed it, “singing down apartheid” with the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold) in 2010. But even the citation for that award omitted much about the scope of his work as composer, arranger and director of stage shows.

Gwangwa was born in Orlando East, outside Johannesburg in 1937. As a student, he became a founder-member of the influential Huddleston Jazz Band alongside Masekela. And, like his contemporary, he also moonlighted wherever there was band work – for example, in trumpeter Elijah Nwanyane’s Rhythm Kings.

Jonas Gwangwa often performed in Elijah’s Rhythm Kings.


When American pianist John Mehegan visited South Africa in the late 1950s, Gwangwa was one of the improvisers with whom he chose to work.

Jonas Gwangwa performed with John Mehegan.


Those and other collaborations led, in turn, to the 1960 release of the “Jazz Epistles, Verse One”. It was the first LP released by black modern jazz players in South Africa. It also featured Kippie Moeketsi, Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and more. As Gwangwa told me in my book Soweto Blues (2004):

Kippie got interested in both Hugh and I because we were attempting all those Charlie Parker things, and Kippie said: ‘Oh, so you like this music? Come here, let me teach you…’

It was during the making of the Jazz Epistles album that Gwangwa began to compose:

I sat at the piano, messing around until I came up with this tune Carol’s Drive… a style was being formulated, of course, only I was not aware of this… I was thinking that I could improvise so why can’t I compose?

The Jazz Epistles with the Gwangwa composition, ‘Carol’s Drive’.


His music writing skills grew when he was engaged as a copyist and pit player for the famous musical “King Kong”. When the production toured abroad in 1961, Gwangwa was one of many cast members who chose not to return to apartheid South Africa after the show’s run concluded. He ended up with Masekela at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

Gwangwa played a pivotal role in selling South African music to initially uninterested US audiences. He was arranger and orchestra director on Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba’s 1965 Grammy winning album “An Evening with Makeba and Belafonte”.

‘Train Song’ from ‘An Evening with Makeba and Belafonte’


Over the following decade, he also had his own projects, touring with Masekela and Semenya in the band, Union of South Africa, alongside American jazz band, The Crusaders.

Union of South Africa.


Gwangwa also released infectious Afro-pop with his band African Explosion.

Gwangwa’s band African Explosion.

Politically meaningful

But, increasingly, the necessity to do something more politically meaningful with his music was becoming. As Gwangwa told me:

I figured that before I became an Americanised African, I have to go home and… grab a little kryptonite.

In the early 1980s he was summoned by the president of the then banned African National Congress (ANC), Oliver Tambo to assist with a group of young musicians in the ANC training camps in Angola who wanted to perform. The result was a musical, called Amandla!. With its slick, disciplined stagecraft, varied programming, comedy, dance routines and original as well as traditional and struggle songs, Amandla! was light years away from simplistic agit-prop.

The track ‘Sasol’ from the original musical ‘Amandla!’.


The script-line was kept sharply up to date:

I always added or changed something to tally with whatever’s happening inside the country.

Between tours, Gwangwa spent as much time as he could in the ANC’s military camps, rehearsing, scouting new talent and sharing the risks. After a vehicle accident in Angola shattered his leg, he spent more time in Botswana, working with the Gaborone-based Medu Arts Ensemble. It was there that much of his best loved material was developed.

The physical perils of exile manifested tragically on 14 June 1985 when the South African Defence Force raided Gaborone, killing more than a dozen people, many connected with Medu. For weeks afterwards, unmarked vehicles with South African number plates spied on Gaborone. One hunted Gwangwa through the streets until he evaded it in the narrow alleys of an informal settlement.

Shortlisted for an Oscar

In 1987, Gwangwa worked with UK composer George Fenton on the soundtrack for the movie “Cry Freedom”, based on the friendship between newspaper editor Donald Woods and civil rights activist, Steve Biko. The music was shortlisted for an Oscar and multiple other international awards, winning both an Ivor Novello and a Black Emmy award.

The title track from the soundtrack of ‘Cry Freedom’.


Although Gwangwa continued to perform – he played at both the 1988 Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert and the 1990 Mandela release concerts in London – that exposure opened additional doors to composing opportunities. Back home, by the mid-1990s his name was both a regular feature on music festival programmes, and a regular pop-up on film in composers’ credits. Since his return home, he has released eight albums.

The ConversationAlthough composing now dominates his time, Gwangwa is still a powerfully compelling live artist. It may be a cliché, but one that is sometimes true: Gwangwa’s music at two memorial services for Kgositsile earlier this year – reprising songs that Medu veterans remember well from Botswana – really did not leave a dry eye in the house.

Gwangwa at a memorial service for Keorapetse Kgositsile.


Gwen Ansell, Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Botswana Is Better Off Than Zimbabwe

By Daniel J. Mitchell

What’s the best argument against statism?

As a libertarian, my answer is that freedom is preferable to coercion. Freedom also ranks higher than prosperity. For instance, the government might be able to boost economic output by requiring people to work seven days a week, but such a policy would be odious and indefensible.

As an economist, I have a more utilitarian perspective. The best argument against statism is that it simply doesn’t work. Nations with bigger government and more intervention routinely under-perform compared to otherwise-similar countries with small government and free markets.

That’s why I often present my leftist friends with my two-question challenge. I ask them to name a country, anywhere on the planet and at any point in history, that has either become rich with statist policies or has experienced superior levels of growth with statist policies.

The Mitchell Challenge statist free market

They never have an answer. Or, to be more specific, they never have an accurate answer since Sweden (their reflex response) became rich when government was small and has stumbled ever since a large welfare state was imposed.

And if they are willing to have an extended discussion, my next step is to compare the long-run performance of market-friendly jurisdictions with statist jurisdictions. Whether we’re looking at Chile vs. VenezuelaNorth Korea vs. South Korea, or Hong Kong vs. Argentina, the results always show that economic liberty is the recipe for growth and prosperity.

When I ask them to show a statist nation with decades of good results, they don’t have an answer. Or, to be more specific, they never have an accurate answer since China (their reflex response) only started to grow once the economy was partially liberalized.

I’m pontificating on this topic because a reader sent me this very stark contrast between market-friendly Botswana and the statist hellhole of Zimbabwe. I can’t vouch for the specific numbers, though it appears some of them are from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.

Botswana Zimbabwe socialism failure

The obvious lesson is that good policy is producing vastly superior results in Botswana.

But I wanted independent confirmation since not everything one sees on the Internet is true (shocking!).

So I checked Human Progress, the invaluable data portal created by Marian Tupy, and downloaded more than 50 years of data for inflation-adjusted ($2010) per-capita GDP in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

The results, to put it mildly, are stunning. Botswana has enjoyed much faster growth than South Africa, and Zimbabwe has suffered horrible stagnation.

Botswana market-driven prosperity

South Africa’s anemic performance doesn’t surprise me.

And I guess the gap between Botswana and Zimbabwe shouldn’t surprise me, either. After all, Marian wrote about the difference between Botswana and Zimbabwe back in 2008.

How different, I thought, was Zimbabwe from Botswana, the latter of which is safe and increasingly prosperous. But what accounts for such striking differences between the two neighbors? It turns out that much of the difference stems from the degree of freedom that each populace enjoys.

Here’s some of what he wrote about Botswana.

As Robert Guest of The Economist noted in his 2004 book, The Shackled Continent, “In the last 35 years, Botswana’s economy has grown faster than any other in the world…” According to Scott Beaulier, an economist at Beloit College, “Khama adopted pro-market policies on a wide front. His new government promised low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, increased personal freedoms, and kept marginal income tax rates low to deter tax evasion and corruption.” …Economic openness served Botswana well. Between 1966 and 2006, its average annual compound growth rate of GDP per capita was 7.22 percent—higher than China’s 6.99 percent. Its GDP per capita (adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity) rose from $671 in 1966 to $10,813 in 2005.

And here are some of his observations about Zimbabwe.

…almost all of the country’s 4,000 white-owned farms were invaded by state-organized gangs. Some of the farmers who resisted the land seizures were murdered, while others fled abroad. …The agricultural sector soon collapsed, and with it most of Zimbabwe’s tax revenue and foreign currency reserves. …the government ordered the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) to print more money, sparking the first hyperinflation of the 21st century. …Mugabe’s answer to the falling economy was to increase state patronage and the intensity of the looting.

Needless to say, nothing has changed in the decade since that article was published. Though hopefully, Mugabe’s recent ouster may lead to better policy in Zimbabwe (it would be difficult to move in the wrong direction, though Venezuela is evidence that further deterioration is possible).

Let’s conclude with a video I shared three years ago, but it’s worth a second look since we’re considering Botswana’s comparative success.

By the way, none of this suggests Botswana is perfect. Indeed, it’s not even close.

According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, it is ranked #50, which means it isn’t even in the top quartile. And its latest score of 7.37 (out of 10) is well below top-ranked Hong Kong’s score of 8.97.

But you don’t have to be fast to win a race. You simply need to be quicker than your competitors. And, on the continent of Africa, Botswana has the most economic freedom.

P.S. I fully expect South Africa to move in the wrong direction, at least in relative terms if not absolute terms.

P.P.S. If you liked the “story of two neighbors” comparison of Botswana and Zimbabwe at the beginning of this column, you’ll probably enjoy this comparison of Detroit and Hiroshima and this comparison of Hong Kong and Havana.

Reprinted from International Liberty.

Daniel J. Mitchell Botswana Zimbabwe statism

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Washington-based economist who specializes in fiscal policy, particularly tax reform, international tax competition, and the economic burden of government spending. He also serves on the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

Project improves food security in six African nations

By Stephanie Achieng’, Gilbert Nakweya

[NAIROBI] An initiative in six African countries has helped improve farming methods and food security.

Launched in 2012, the project funded by the government of Finland and called FoodAfrica Programme has helped improve the security and quality of food supply in Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Uganda.

During a meeting held this month in Kenya (7 March), the programme leaders said that the initiative that ends in June this year is centred on sustainable food production, food safety and nutrition, market access and agricultural extension.

“This is a good initiative that has helped increase our knowledge on farming methods such as grafting.”

Peter Katumbu, Eastern Kenya

Mila Sell, a senior specialist, Natural Resources Institute Finland, says that African soils are generally poor in micronutrients, which is a big challenge because smallholders have insufficient money to buy fertilisers.

“Small-scale farmers, especially in the rural areas, have the weakest access to information,” says Sell, adding that providing information, especially on land preparation and proper use of inputs to these farmers, can increase yields.

According to Sell, Africa offers enormous diversity of unused edible plant species that could help foster food security. These species, she notes, could be used by involving women in decision-making at household and national levels in matters of agriculture, especially food and nutrition.

The programme, the experts noted, has been able to engage volunteer farmer trainers (VFTs) to help increase the reach and sustainability of agricultural extension services. It has trained 20,000 farmers and improved the livelihoods of more than 200,000 people.

In an interview with SciDev.Net, Steve Franzel, an agricultural economist at the Kenya-headquartered World Agroforestry Centre, which is one of the project’s implementing partners, said that although organisations are increasingly recruiting voluntary farmer trainers, proactive measures such as targeting women’s groups are needed for recruiting female farmer trainers.

He added that VFTs are highly neglected and inadequately funded even though they play an important role in increasing trust to adopt new technologies. “This is a positive indicator for sustainability as seen in dairy farming in Western parts of Kenya,” explains Franzel.

But Peter Katumbu, a smallholder from Masii in Eastern Kenya says that smallholders still need help to access information, especially on markets. “This is a good initiative that has helped increase our knowledge on farming methods such as grafting,” Katumbu tells SciDev.Net.

Katumbu, who plants mangoes and oranges, says that access to markets will help smallholders get value for their produce and invest more in farming, thus increasing agricultural productivity and food security.

Since September last year, smallholders in Masii have realised over 60 per cent losses as their mangoes rot because of lack of markets, he adds.

Being a trainer of fellow smallholder farmers, Katumbu says that it was easier for him to persuade farmers in his locality using vernacular language and show them what to do practically. “I am now a pioneer farmer in this area, helping smallholders improve their farming methods,” he explains.

According to Sell, the programme has mostly been about research where good farming practices have been developed and tested. She adds that recommendations have been given to farmers and policymakers.

The next step is to put the learning into use and assess the initiative’s impact on food production.

According to her, because of the initiative, in Senegal cattle farmers incomes rose eight times because of more effective farming methods and cross-breeding.

She adds that the adoption of improved post-harvest methods including mobile dryer combined with tarp drying, farmers have reduced aflatoxin contamination by 80 per cent.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.