The continent of Africa, which currently encompasses about one third of all existing ethnicities worldwide, is fascinating because it is not only the most likely homeland of the genus Homo, but also of modern humans (our species Homo sapiens).
For this reason, it meets the interests of most researchers in anthropology, including palaeontologists, archaeologists, geneticists and scholars of many other related disciplines (e.g. ethnology, historical linguistics, and so on). In all these diverse fields, recent discoveries and results have challenged current hypotheses on the peopling history of this continent.
First, very old fossils attributed to modern humans have been found in the Moroccan archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, dating back to the emergence of our species from 200,000 to about 300,000 years ago and extending the putative origin of Homo sapiens from East to North-West Africa. This finding appears to be compatible with the age estimated for a very old modern human bone recently found outside Africa in the Near East, which suggests more ancient dispersals from Africa than previously thought, in better agreement with palaeoclimatic data.
Researchers now also debate on alternative locations for our origins based on genetic data; besides East Africa, a great attention is paid to South Africa where the analyses of ancient genomes indicate a possible divergence of the first modern human populations more than 250,000 years ago. Besides its role as a putative homeland of modern humans, Africa has also been the scene of multiple migrations resulting in remarkable population diversity, today represented by more than 2,000 population groups who follow distinct lifestyles and who speak different languages belonging to four separate linguistic phyla.
Extensive genomic studies have considerably enlightened our understanding of the great genetic variation observed in Africa, which was likely shaped by multiple factors such as geographic dispersals linked to climatic changes, environmental adaptations associated with diseases, cultural adaptations and many others.
Additionally, recent research in prehistory has deepened our understanding of the emergence of tools and cognition during the Early Stone Age, long before the appearance of Homo sapiens. Among other cultural innovations, discoveries of evidence of symbolism and art, in southern Africa, are also important to discuss the issue of the emergence of so-called “modern behaviour”, purportedly associated in Africa with our species. Bio-archaeological and archaeological research have also much improved our understanding of the circulation of important new knowledge, like the manufacture of complex techniques (stone tools, pottery, iron metallurgy), or animal and plant domestication.
The diffusion of these new techniques, modes of subsistence, and important migrations throughout the African continent are highly correlated to climatic and environmental variations, but also to cultural factors, including resilience.
The pattern of adoption of these innovations is also quite different from the ones known in Europe or elsewhere, and still needs much more investigations. Therefore, it is more and more necessary to approach the questions of human peopling and the evolution of the different modes of subsistence with a multidisciplinary perspective. Some regions of Africa are currently studied with such a strategy, combining data from genetics, linguistics, bio-archaeology, palaeo-environment and archaeology, and will be presented as examples.
This conference aims at gathering a number of outstanding international researchers active in different fields in order to present a comprehensive view of our present knowledge about the peopling of Africa.
It should offer the opportunity to discuss the advantages and perspectives of such research, as well as the challenges of a multidisciplinary strategy. An open call will allow researchers and students to present posters within the focus of the conference.