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The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry

by Bryan Sykes

Pub Date: July 9th, 2001
ISBN: 0-393-02018-5
Publisher: Norton

A British geneticist details the contributions of his discipline to anthropology.

Perhaps the most startling breakthrough of genetic science is the confirmation that we are all descended from a very small number of prehistoric individuals. Sykes (Molecular Medicine/Oxford) has been examining DNA from fossil animals and humans, and from their modern descendents, since the 1980s. At an early stage, he and his colleagues recognized that the relationships of far-flung modern populations will be recorded in the sequence of their DNA—particularly mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited exclusively from one’s mother, and which mutates at a slow but steady rate. Armed with blood samples from across the Pacific, he traced the Polynesians to their origins in the neighborhood of Taiwan. His investigations of European DNA appear to eliminate the hypothesis that modern humans are in part descended from Neanderthals. Controversy arose when Sykes’s research contradicted the widely received theory that the indigenous hunter-gatherer population of Europe was largely replaced by an influx of farmers from the Middle East in the early Neolithic period. Mitochondrial DNA indicated that instead of being wiped out by invading farmers, the natives adopted the practice of agriculture from the easterners; the culture changed, not the population. The anthropological establishment at first denied the validity of his methods, but independent lines of DNA evidence confirmed his results, indicating that the Neolithic influx contributed only about 20 percent of the modern European genetic heritage. Most recently, Sykes has determined that the vast majority of Europeans are descended from seven prehistoric women—whom he names and imaginatively describes in the final chapters of this entertaining book. These fictional re-creations give a useful sense of the complexity of early human society.

A clear and readable exposition of the interface between genetics and anthropology, enlivened by a wry sense of humor.