100 World Class South Africans: Himla Soodyall

2013-07-31 12:00

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Going back to our roots

Professor Soodyall is a world-renowned genetic anthropologist.

Her research has identified some of the oldest DNA found in living people, suggesting that all modern humans are descendants of those who evolved in southern Africa.

Soodyall enrolled at Wits in 1985 – living in a Hillbrow hotel, due to the Group Areas Act – and later won a fellowship to Pennsylvania State University.

Here she not only worked with her hero, Professor Mark Stoneking (who first proposed the ‘Out of Africa’ theory), but also escaped the prejudice in South Africa where she’d been the only Indian woman in a white, male-dominated field.

In the US, ‘I was an ordinary person, I gained the respect of my peers,’ she told African Scientist.

Soodyall is now director of the Human Genomic Diversity & Disease Research Unit at Wits and was a principal researcher for National Geographic’s Genographic Project, the largest international study yet using DNA from all over the world to determine where we all came from.

Results so far have been published in over 35 eminent journals. Soodyall, who worked with the Khoi-San, says: ‘The findings are a phenomenal tribute to the indigenous people of southern Africa. We have given them an opportunity to reclaim their place in the history of the world.’

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