Humanity’s Genes Reveal Its Tangled History

Razib Khan in the National Review:

DavidReichReality, it turns out, is more complex and interesting than scientists ever imagined.

In the early 19th century, Jean-Fraconnçois Champollion used the Rosetta Stone to begin the process of deciphering the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt. We already knew Egypt through the Bible and the histories of the Greeks, but even Herodotus wrote 2,000 years after the beginning of the Old Kingdom. With the translation of hieroglyphics, the legend of Egypt came to life. What had been cloudy became clear.

In Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard’s Medical School and the Broad Institute, introduces us to the 21st-century Rosetta Stone: ancient DNA, which will do more for our understanding of prehistory than radiocarbon dating did. Where the latter allowed archaeologists to create a timeline based on the material objects they excavated, DNA sequencing allows scholars to explore the genetics of the people who created those material cultures. We may never see the face of Agamemnon, but we already have the DNA of the warlords of Mycenaean Greece, and in the future we could reconstruct their features from genes alone.

Reich operates at the intersection of a multiplicity of fields: archaeology to retrieve samples, molecular biology to extract genetic material, genomics to turn that material into data, and cluster computing to analyze the data generated. His team also includes a former cryptographer and zoologists, and his collaborators include linguists, anthropologists, and historians.

More here.