Recommended Reading: Mapping Human History

For more than a century anthropologists have studied the multitude of cultures and ethnicities that exist across the globe, delving deep into the various ways that populations develop their own unique identities. With the development of genetic anthropology over the last 15 years, scientists have begun to examine whether these cultural identities align with a population’s genetics. How do we as humans differ genetically from one another, and how have these differences arisen throughout our species’ history? This fascinating question is tackled by Steve Olson in Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through our Genes.

Olson is well suited to explain the complex genetic history of our species. He has worked for the National Academy of Sciences, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and written several books and articles for general audiences on human genetics. While researching this book he interviewed a large number of anthropological geneticists. He uses his experience in science communication — as well as those interviews — to tell the story of Homo sapiens, beginning in Africa and touching on nearly every major geographical region in the world.

Olson starts his exploration of our species’ genetic history where it began, in Africa. He begins by describing some of the most isolated and interesting ethnic groups — the so-called Bushmen of southwest Africa and the Kalahari Desert. This well known group of hunter-gatherers has interested anthropologists and geneticists alike for many decades. The Bushmen are relatively isolated, maintaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle even as many populations around them have taken on new lifestyles. They also speak languages that are famous for their ‘click’ sounds. Belonging to the Khoisan language family, these languages are believed to be some of the most ancient still spoken among humans.

Olson uses examples such as the Bushmen to delve deeper into the science of genetic ancestry. He clearly explains how scientists use DNA to trace both maternal and paternal ancestry, similar to what we at 23andMe do as part of our Personal Genome Service™. After spending time discussing Africa Olson moves on, tracking our species’ prehistoric movements into the Near East, Asia, Europe, and even the Americas. He also spends time discussing some of the most interesting genetic questions about our species, such as the origins and migrations of the Jews throughout history, and how changes in languages can sometimes be connected to genetic changes.

The final portion of Mapping Human History investigates more closely the cultural and ethnic issues that have arisen over the past ten years because of studies that examine the genetic ancestry of specific populations. Some Native American groups, for example, protest studies such as these because they conflict with their own tribes’ creation stories. However, Olson argues this research should actually be applauded, because “the study of genetics has now revealed that we are all linked…. We are members of a single human family, the products of genetic necessity and chance.”

Mapping Human History is, overall, a good foray into our species’ genetic past and how genetics studies can reveal many things — both about how we are different, and how we are the same. Olson peppers his arguments with engaging anecdotes, such as the story of a female researcher in South Africa with mixed heritage, or how the peopling of Hawaii led to such unique genetic diversity among its current inhabitants. These anecdotes would be welcome for any general reader, making the concepts Olson discusses more real and accessible to a general audience.

There are many books that deal with genetic ancestry, and this one does cover many of the same topics as countless others. But what distinguishes Mapping Human History is its focus on genetic versus cultural and ethnic divisions in our societies. This alternative angle may prove interesting to general audiences with non-science backgrounds, as Olson brings in issues such as race relations and cultural and ethnic diversity that are relevant to many people.

This text would prove an appealing read for 23andMe customers looking to put their own genetic information into a global context. In addition, it would be well-suited for anyone interested in how our species has evolved and expanded over the last few hundred thousand years, and how these past migrations have shaped the ethnic and cultural identities that exist today across the globe.

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through our Genes
Steve Olson
2002
New York: Hougton Mifflin Company






  • Pupsenok

    I wish to comment on the statement that: “They also speak languages that are famous for their ‘click’ sounds. Belonging to the Khoisan language family, these languages are believed to be some of the most ancient still spoken among humans.”

    All language groups are equally ancient. It is not as though one group of humans was speaking and another group of humans was mute. Nor is it as though one group of languages popped up spontaneously. For example, Modern English is descended from Old English, which is descended from West Germanic, which is descended from Proto-Germanic, which in turn is descended from Indo-European, which is descended from some earlier proto-Indo-European, which is descended from some more ancient form. Some linguists go back even further and try to derive all languages from a proto-World-Speak, the linguistic equivalent of mitochondrial Eve.

    In fact, language groups are very much like population groups. All of the Indo-European language family share similarities, just as all the members of a genetic family share similarities. The sister languages within each daughter group, such as Romance (French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.), Germanic (English, German, Dutch, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Slavic (Polish, Russian, Czech, Serbian, etc.), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, etc.) share more similarities…like sharing more genetic markers. And language cousins, like English and Russian, share more similarities than English and Chinese, which are totally unrelated. Moreover, languages change or mutate over time (so Old English is incomprehensible to a speaker of Modern English), just as genetic markers change or mutate over time.

    For those more interested in the movement and spread of linguistic features and their distribution over the globe, particularly with reference to the movement of peoples (as languages only move only as a function of the movement of people who speak them), I highly recommend Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time (University of Chicago Press, 1992) by linguist Johanna Nichols.

    It is wonderful and informative to see how the spread of linguistic types closely parallels that of the spread of genetic types. For example, both linguistics and genetics point to a circum-Pacific Asiatic homeland for the peoples who populated the New World. The parallels between linguistics and genetics are astounding. The one complements and corroborates the other.

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