Harvard genetics professor David Reich tells the story of human origins recently revealed as much more complicated than originally thought thanks to advances in genetics technology, which offer new insights into ancient human innovations in archeology, linguistics, and the written word.
What should you expect when you read this book? Don’t expect an oversimplified story. Population genetics is a complicated, fast-moving field with many uncertainties of interpretation. To tell that story to the broad public, and not just to scientists reading specialty journals, is a big challenge. Reich explains these complications as well as any geneticist could; others rarely even try. Some of Reich’s conclusions will surely be superseded within a few years. But few subjects fascinate us as much as human origins. Humans have been on the move not just since Columbus’s voyage of 1492, but throughout our long history. The ancestors of modern Japanese, Indians and Native Americans didn’t become fixed in their modern locations in ancient times and simply stop moving. If you want to understand our origins over the course of the last 100,000 years, this book will be the best up-to-date account for you.
Who We Are and How We Got Here chronicles Mr. Reich’s work in five regions of the world. The stories are varied ... Understandably, a few details in Mr. Reich’s book are already out of date. In such a novel area of science, individual research results are unlikely to persist for long. What will endure are the larger themes: People in many parts of the world today have little DNA from the first peoples who lived in the same region. Most living groups are mixtures of ancient groups, which used to be much more genetically different from one another. Modern human ancestry is checkered with the traces of archaic ghosts ... for the great human story to matter to us, we must each see our own place in it. The dead cannot speak, but science can help us to see their humanity nonetheless. Doing so helps us maintain the humanity of our science.
Reich’s work can finally answer the tantalising question first posed by an British civil servant, Sir William Jones. In 1786, he discovered the kinship of Sanskrit and ancient Greek. This led to the recognition of the vast Indo-European language family – which includes the Germanic, Celtic, Italic, near eastern (Iranian) and north Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, etc) – but not to any consensus on how this might have occurred. Reich has now shown that the Indo-European languages and the largest single component of the genetic makeup of Europe and north India today stem from migrations around 5,000 years ago from the vast Steppe, the grass plains bordering the Black and Caspian seas ... Reich’s overall picture will, in time, acquire much greater detail – just as Darwin’s great study was a beginning not an end – but we should be grateful to him and his large team of co-workers (including his wife, science writer Eugenie Reich, who had a big role in the book’s creation) for putting the essential story before us now. It is thrilling in its clarity and its scope.