Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes
© 2002 Steve Olson
Mapping Human History caught my attention a couple of weeks ago given my interests in evolution and anthropology. Author Steve Olson offers a quick history of human settlement throughout the globe, throwing in some light genetics discussion along the way. He uses specific populations as case studies to demonstrate how genetic historians can track certain haplotypes through time. This is more difficult than it sounds, because despite the distance between human populations and the role of geography in separating particular groups from the other, human beings as a group are unusually homogeneous: the little differences of skin tone and nose width are infinitesimal compared the many similarities, leading Olson to discount not just ‘races’, but most ethnic groups. In Olson’s research, finding long strands of ‘junk’ DNA that have no known purpose was easier than tracking genes with a role in influencing our outward appearances. He believes that as time progresses and globalization continues its course, race as a concept will fade away. He uses Hawaii to imagine what a society might be like.
Interesting and readable; it’s a different perspective for history students like myself, one worth considering. Especially interesting to me this week given that I’m reading a history of native America is that there’s some genetic evidence to support the idea that there were humans in North America before the big Clovis expansion which is usually the attributed cause of the Americas’ indigenous population. While archaeologists have found some artifacts on the east coast and Central America that are far older than previously expected, some native Americans also carry in them a particular haplotype absent in Asians, but present in but long-time removed from Europeans. This would mean that people carrying European genes arrived and intermarried with the various people of North American before Leif Erikson and the Age of Discovery. This haplotype has also appeared in northern Siberia, which might mean they followed the same course that the Clovis people did. Historians already utilize clues from language and art styles to piece together the histories of people, and genetic seems a fascinating new addition to the ‘toolbox’.