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On the trail of our ancestors

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April 23rd, 2013
DNA double helix
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The most avid genealogists can trace their ancestral histories back several hundred years, but beyond that point the trail often runs cold, at least for researchers working with paper.

In 2005, geneticist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Spencer Wells launched an ambitious endeavor that essentially amounts to genealogy on steroids. Far from the traditional dusty documents and microfiche records, the Genographic Project uses DNA samples to produce a detailed image of individual participants and, eventually, humanity as a whole.

The goal is to solve long-standing anthropological mysteries surrounding our past, not so much by race or ethnicity, but as a species.

For instance, where did mankind begin its journey, and how did we go on to populate the planet? Questions like these are at the heart of Wells’s search for answers.

“In the scheme of things, modern man isn’t that old, having originated in Africa within the last 200,000 years,” he explains. “We began to leave Africa roughly 70,000 years ago and, in the blink of an eye, we’ve scattered to the wind.

“What we’re after are the details about how we managed to do that. Why did some groups head for the mountains and others for the rainforests or arid regions?”

Looking for answers

Wells has spent half a decade whittling away at this puzzle. Using collection methods as simple as a cheek swab to obtain as complex a material as DNA, his team has sampled some 500,000 people in 130 countries.

Analyzing a strand of DNA, Wells looks for what he calls “typos,” or small genetic changes that have passed through an ancestral line over the years. A map of these anomalies creates a hereditary picture at both the individual and global level, and goes deeper than any family tree ever produced by way of conventional genealogy.

For instance, National Geographic explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic and mounted historic expeditions to the Lusitania and the battleship Bismarck, provided a DNA sample and learned that his genome is 2% Oceanian, linking him to seafarers who settled islands off the coast of southeast Asia 50,000 years ago.

“Before DNA analysis, we didn’t have a tool that made it possible to trace how we migrated out of Africa and moved all over the world,” says Wells. “Now, we’re able to do that. We can determine where your ancestors were tens of thousands of years ago and, believe it or not, this is just the beginning.”

Wells has no intention of stopping at the half-million mark and hopes to sample the globe.

“Harnessing DNA technology to tell the story of mankind is, I think, the ultimate level of exploration,” says Wells. “We’re not just exploring what’s inside of us. We’re exploring where we are today and how we got there.”

For more information about the Genographic Project, visit genographic.nationalgeographic.com.

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