Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mapping Human History

Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes
© 2002 Steve Olson
292 pages

Mapping Human History caught my attention a couple of weeks ago given my interests in evolution and anthropology. Author Steve Olson offers a quick history of human settlement throughout the globe, throwing in some light genetics discussion along the way. He uses specific populations as case studies to demonstrate how genetic historians can track certain haplotypes through time. This is more difficult than it sounds, because despite the distance between human populations and the role of geography in separating particular groups from the other, human beings as a group are unusually homogeneous: the little differences of skin tone and nose width are infinitesimal compared the many similarities, leading Olson to discount not just 'races', but most ethnic groups. In Olson's research, finding long strands of 'junk' DNA that have no known purpose was easier than tracking genes with a role in influencing our outward appearances.  He believes that as time progresses and globalization continues its course, race as a concept will fade away. He uses Hawaii to imagine what a society might be like.

Interesting and readable; it's a different perspective for history students like myself, one worth considering. Especially interesting to me this week given that I'm reading a history of native America is that there's some genetic evidence to support the idea that there were humans in North America before the big Clovis expansion which is usually the attributed cause of the Americas' indigenous population. While archaeologists have found some artifacts on the east coast and Central America  that are far older than previously expected,  some native Americans also carry in them a particular haplotype absent in Asians, but present in but long-time removed from Europeans. This would mean that people carrying European genes arrived and intermarried with the various people of North American before Leif Erikson and the Age of Discovery.  This haplotype has also appeared in northern Siberia, which might mean they followed the same course that the Clovis people did. Historians already utilize clues from language and art styles to piece together the histories of people, and genetic seems a fascinating new addition to the 'toolbox'.


  1. How heavy is the reading? It sounds almost like suggested reading for an anthropology class, but is it interesting otherwise?

    I like the though of Hawaiians being the very mixed genotype. We have a sub-community here in India called coorgi, which has a similar mixed history.

  2. Sounds fascinating. I've just read a 'Very Short Introduction' book on Anthropology and enjoyed it so might look this up.... if Amazon sell it [grin]

  3. @ Deepali: Not very. The genetics discussion was more limited than I expected: the author explains the science he will be using at the beginning of the book, and then makes occasional reference to it. Much of the book is straightforward history, using genetics as a reference. I haven't read much science this year, but this was a breezy read for me.

    @ CyberKitten: One of the most interesting ideas in the book for me was that people began agriculture as a response to not being able to continue leaving their old clan without bumping into other people and subsequently fighting with them. Looks like Amazon sells it dirt-cheap!

  4. sc said: One of the most interesting ideas in the book for me was that people began agriculture as a response to not being able to continue leaving their old clan without bumping into other people and subsequently fighting with them.

    Interesting... Odd, but interesting.

    sc said: Looks like Amazon sells it dirt-cheap!


    By the way - talking of science-based books. I have a few coming up (mixed in with history books and a few SF) and intend reading much more science stuff in the new year. Like you I am (or have been) neglecting science for too long. I'm feeling decidedly rusty.

  5. @CyberKitten:

    I plan on emphasizing science next year as well, though the trouble will be in finding and acquiring the appropriate books. I've a suspicion most of mine will be in the realm of anthropology and evolutionary psychology.

  6. I'm planning a bit of physics, evolutionary biology and probably some history of science - maybe some anthropology too (a Very Short Introduction book on that subject is presently in my 'To Review' pile).


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.