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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

By Adam Rutherford
15-minute read
Audio available
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016) tells the story of humanity through genetics. These blinks explain how humans evolved, the role that genes played – and continue to play – in our development, and the ways in which our genetic past can shine a light on the present.

  • Historians, archaeologists, geneticists and biologists
  • Anyone interested in the history and biology of human life
  • Students fascinated by evolution, genes and DNA

Adam Rutherford is a science writer and broadcaster who earned his doctorate in genetics at University College London. He’s the creator of such award-winning BBC programs as Inside Science, The Cell and Playing God.

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

By Adam Rutherford
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford
Synopsis

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016) tells the story of humanity through genetics. These blinks explain how humans evolved, the role that genes played – and continue to play – in our development, and the ways in which our genetic past can shine a light on the present.

Key idea 1 of 9

Genetic analysis opens a window into the past.

When you open a history book, everything seems to be set in stone. But in reality, much of human history is foggy. And the longer you travel back in time, the hazier our knowledge becomes. While historians are pretty confident about what happened in ancient Greece, as you delve back further, it becomes difficult to put your finger on the truth.

The good news is that genetic analysis has enabled science to look deeper into the past, truly uncovering the ancient history of humanity. This technology rests on the discoveries of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists like Gregor Mendel, Francis Crick and James Watson, who slowly unraveled the mysteries of DNA and the human genome.

Thanks to their work, scientists at the Human Genome Project finally deciphered a full set of human DNA in 2000, following a Herculean effort. Now medical science can analyze the genes of living humans. But it can also extract DNA from archeological samples to study the genes of our ancient ancestors. This new field is called paleogenetics and it uses DNA to tell an exciting story.

Modern humans are known as Homo sapiens or “wise man.” But before we evolved, other Homo species existed, like Homo neanderthalensis, Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus.

Homo erectus was one of the early upright apes. The species evolved into existence some 1.9 million years ago on the African continent before spreading across the globe. Homo sapiens, our own species, likely evolved in Africa as well, specifically in the eastern part of the continent, around 200,000 years ago. As the first Homo sapiens left Africa and entered Eurasia, they encountered another species of human, Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly known as Neanderthals.

As it turned out, the encounter was a happy one. Our two species had sex – actually, a lot of sex.

In fact, through genetic analysis, we now know that the average European shares around 2.7 percent of her genetics with Neanderthals. So, while they may be a separate species that eventually died out, they never truly went extinct. A more accurate description is that they merged with our species.

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