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The objective of this study was to provide deeper knowledge of the maternal genetic structure and demographic history of the human populations of the Sahel/Savannah belt, the extensive region lying between the Sahara and tropical rainforests, spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea coast. The study aimed to confirm or disconfirm archaeological and linguistic data indicating that the region’s populations underwent diversification as a result of the spread of agropastoral food-producing subsistence lifestyles, over time dividing the region into separate areas of nomadic pastoralism, on the one hand, and sedentary farming, on the other. To perform both descriptive and coalescence analyses from the Sahel/Savannah belt’s entire region, including western and eastern rather than just central populations studied previously, we generated a new mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data set not only having almost 2,000 samples (875 of which were newly collected) but also encompassing whole mtDNA D-loop segment rather than only the previously studied hypervariable segment 1. While comparing our analyses with previous results from the Lake Chad Basin (central Sahel/Savannah Belt), we found similar intrapopulation diversity measures (i.e., lower values in pastoralists than in farmers). However, the new data set pointed to significant differences in mating strategies between western and eastern pastoralists: our results suggest higher gene flow between the Arabic pastoralists and neighboring farmers in the eastern part than between the Fulani pastoralists and their sedentary neighbors in the western part of the Sahel/Savannah belt. The findings are discussed in light of archaeological and linguistic data, allowing us to postulate that the genetic differentiation of Fulani pastoralists from the common western African agropastoral gene pool occurred at around the same time as the arrival of the Arabic pastoralists to eastern Africa. However, it seems that while the process of divergence of the Fulani pastoralists in the west was accompanied by a loss of Fulani females to other populations, the Arab pastoralists’ immigration to the Sahel/Savannah belt conversely resulted in some gain of local females into this Arab population.

Supplementary Tables and Figures.pdf (2834 kB)
Supplementary Tables and Figures