Why paleoanthropology is cooler than you think and how to find the missing link with a Q-tip.
By Maria Popova
GENEALOGY ON STEROIDS
We’re all African.
No, seriously — this isn’t some charity slogan, it’s an evolutionary fact. And our DNA — yours, ours, Chuck Norris’s — contains a historical record of it. The big question, really, is how we ended up so scattered across the globe and so incredibly diverse as a species — 6.5 billion of us, speaking 6,000 languages, sporting all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.
Now, genographer Spencer Wells is closer than ever to building a family tree for all of humanity. For the past couple of years, he’s toured dozens of countries tackling that great big question of origins in order to explain our amazing diversity.
And it all comes down to mitochonodrial DNA — the maternal ancestry component you get from your mother and your grandmother and so forth. Turns out, a single African woman, “Mitochondrial Eve,” gave rise to all of today’s mitochondrial diversity about 200,000 years ago. And just to prove your mother right when she told you boys were “late bloomers,” turns out “Y-Chromosome Adam” — the source of the Y-chromosome, the male side of the ancestry story — only lived about 60,000 years ago, a mere 2,000 human generations ago. Which, of course, is measely in evolutionary terms.
Watch Wells’ fascinating yet easily digestible TED Talk on it all.
In 2005, Spencer Wells partnered with National Geographic on a film version of his book, The Journey of Man. The NG folks became so interested in the concept that they offered Wells a 5-year partnership, dubbed The Genographic Project, with the goal of studying millions of people’s DNA in order to trace humanity’s migration patterns over history.
Here comes the cool part: You can order a kit and test your own DNA. At home. Then submit the results to the National Geographic database for analysis, not only finding out your own geneticgenetic journey but also becoming a little flag on the great big map of human geneaology.
So far, they’ve received results from nearly 300,000 people and raised over $8 million.
The whole thing is, of course, a non-profit and any money they raise, after covering the cost of the kit and the data processing, gets funnelled back into the project, mostly into The Legacy Fund — a grant-giving charity that gives money to indigenous groups around the world for various sustainability, educational, philanthropic and otherwise awesome projects they’ve applied for.
So go ahead, order the kit — it costs less than our college Biology textbook back in the day, and it goes towards greater things than the Barnes & Noble bottom line.