Nature 464, 487 (25 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/464487a; Published online 24 March 2010

Issues raised by use of ethnic-group names in genome study

Carina Schlebusch1

  1. Department of Evolutionary Biology, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18D, 52 36 Uppsala, Sweden

Issues raised by use of ethnic-group names in genome study


I question the ethnic labels used by Stephan Schuster and colleagues in their paper 'Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa' (Nature 463, 943–947; 2010) and in the public database where they deposited the sequences. The authors explain their choice of names in their Supplementary Information, but the terms Khoisan, Bantu and Bushman are perceived by those populations as outdated and even derogatory.

Khoisan derives from the Nama words for 'person' and 'foragers' and was coined by Leonard Schultze in 1928 as a collective term for the Khoi (later known as Khoe) pastoralist and the San hunter-gatherer groups. The term now persists only in a linguistic context, as in “Khoisan-speaking”. The same applies to Bantu, which means 'people' but which acquired an offensive connotation during the apartheid regime in South Africa.

San communities (represented by the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa and the South African San Institute) attending the 2003 African Human Genome Initiative conference declared a preference to be known either by their individual community names (!Xun or Khomani, for example) or collectively as San, rather than as Bushmen or Khoisan. If the San need to be grouped with the Khoe pastoralist groups, the term Khoe–San is preferred.

With southern Africa's history of racism and discrimination, people are very sensitive to the labels assigned to them. It is important that subjects participating in scientific research feel that the scientific community respects their sentiments.

See also Issues raised by use of ethnic-group names in genome study: Schuster and colleagues reply.

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