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Who We Are and How We Got Here

Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

By David Reich
16-minute read
Audio available
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich

Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) takes readers on a journey through the world’s anthropological history, demonstrating that people have continually migrated and mixed over time. Recent scientific advances are allowing scientists to study human DNA from the distant past and compare it to that of those alive today. The insights about humans’ origins are both fascinating and revealing.

  • Scientists with burgeoning interests in anthropology and languages
  • Ethno-nationalists looking to have their views challenged
  • Genealogists looking for the bigger picture

David Reich is a professor of genetics at Harvard University and a leading expert on ancient DNA. He was commended in 2015 for his role in the ancient DNA revolution and received the Dan David Prize for Archaeological and Natural Sciences in 2017 thanks to his work uncovering the interbreeding between Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans.

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Who We Are and How We Got Here

Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

By David Reich
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich
Synopsis

Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) takes readers on a journey through the world’s anthropological history, demonstrating that people have continually migrated and mixed over time. Recent scientific advances are allowing scientists to study human DNA from the distant past and compare it to that of those alive today. The insights about humans’ origins are both fascinating and revealing.

Key idea 1 of 10

Scientific advances in genetics give us unique insights into early human history and development.

DNA analysis is a wonder of modern science. It means scientists can get to the root of understanding who we are and from where our species comes. But it can be tricky to get your head around.

A good metaphor would be a grenade that’s exploded in a room. The effort required to gather the scattered shrapnel and work out an exact picture of where each bit came from is a not dissimilar task to DNA analysis.

But what exactly is DNA? Well, DNA molecules make up the human genome, the genetic code that each of us inherits from our parents. DNA consists of twin chains of molecules called nucleotides made from the chemicals adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Each chain is about three billion chemical blocks in length.

In contrast, genes are fragments of these chains, generally around a thousand nucleotides long. Each gene is an instruction that tells us something about how the body is built.

Random variations in these inherited sequences are called mutations. These occur roughly once every thousand nucleotides. Mutations are what make us individual, and they are also the means by which individual ancestry can be determined. If you compare two people’s mutations, the more differences you find between their genes, the further they are away from sharing a common ancestor.

One big impact of DNA study is that it has changed our views on evolution.

Scientists used to think that subsets of the human species evolved in parallel to each other on different continents. For instance, that European humans evolved in Europe or Indian humans evolved in India.

However mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the maternal line, has revised scientists’ opinions. All humans today are descended from a single female ancestor. She is known as “Mitochondrial Eve,” and she lived in Africa no more than 200,000 years ago.

If the old multi-regional theory held true, then any shared ancestor we had would be close to an incredible two million years old and part of the dispersal of Homo erectus globally around 1.8 million years ago.

However, when Mitochondrial Eve is seen as our shared ancestor, then modern humans must have evolved in Africa and only spread across the world 50,000 years ago.

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