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The past few years have witnessed a revolution in our ability to obtain DNA from ancient humans. This important new data has added to our knowledge from archaeology and anthropology, helped resolve long-existing controversies, challenged long-held views, and thrown up remarkable surprises. The emerging picture is one of many waves of ancient human migrations, so that all populations living today are mixes of ancient ones, and often carry a genetic component from archaic humans. David Reich, whose team has been at the forefront of these discoveries, explains what genetics is telling us about ourselves and our complex and often surprising ancestry. Gone are old ideas of any kind of racial âpurity.’ Instead, we are finding a rich variety of mixtures. Reich describes the cutting-edge findings from the past few years, and also considers the sensitivities involved in tracing ancestry, with science sometimes jostling with politics and tradition. He brings an important wider message: that we should recognize that every one of us is the result of a long history of migration and intermixing of ancient peoples, which we carry as ghosts in our DNA. What will we discover next?
Review: The book proved to be a difficult read for me. This emanated from the intrinsic complexity of comparing ancient and modern genomes of populations continuously migrating and interbreeding. The populations in a place today are never the direct descendants of the people that lived in the same place in the past but the result of continuous migrations and interbreeding as complex in the past as in the present. At times I felt lost. Moreover, I felt that the narrative was addressed to a more specialist audience than the general reader and this was corroborated by specialist statistics used such as the four population test which must be known only to specialists studying ancient genomes.
The book presents novel findings but it is also a work in progress in that it is anticipated that in the coming decade more ancient genomes will be sequenced but also more sophisticated statistic techniques will be developed and employed.
The determination of ancient genomes became possible because since the sequencing of the human genome project in 2006, the methods became thousands of times more efficient and thousands of times less expensive. Whole genomes provide much more information than the previously used sequencing of the male (Y) chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA which is exclusively inherited by the females.
Comparisons of genomes, ancient and modern is based on the determination of mutations over time while their rate is constant in time. Particularly important are single letter mutations known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) of which there are literally thousand in the genome.
The study of ancient genomes revealed that there was interbreeding of both Neanderthals and Denisovans with modern human populations.
Even before reading the book, I had known that there is no genetic basis for racism in that the genetic variation within Africa is higher than between a non -African and an African.
On the other hand, I obtained interesting information on inequality, not inequality between male and female but the inequality of access of a privileged male individual or group to females. In this regard the result of genomic studies of interbreeding between Americans of West European and West African origin revealed the dominance of American males of West European origin breeding with American females of Wets African origin.
On a similar vein was the study of Y chromosomes which suggested that one single male who lived around the time of the Mongols left many millions of direct male-line descendants across the territory that the Mongols occupied. The evidence is that about 8 percent of males in the lands that the Mongol Empire once occupied share a characteristic Y-chromosome sequence or one differing just a few mutations. This Y-chromosome was called ‘Star Cluster’to reflect the idea of a single ancestor with many descendants; and estimated the date of the founder of this lineage to be thirteen hundred to seven hundred years ago based on the estimated rate of accumulation of mutations on the Y chromosome. The date coincides with that of Genghis Khan, suggesting that this single successful Y chromosome may have been his.
The inbreeding of Ashkenazi Jews to which the author belongs is a well known fact. What was new and surprising to me was that endogamy is widely practiced in India, a nation in excess of one billion inhabitants. This is due to the caste system numbering thousands of sub-groups in which endogamy is practiced. The study of such groups is important for the cure and prevention of genetic diseases emanating from inbreeding.
Ancient human genomes are often contaminated by genomes of pathogens which renders the identification of human genomes difficult. On the other hand the identification of the genomes of these pathogens sheds light on the diseases with which these people were afflicted. Particularly important in this regard was the identification of ‘Yersinia pestis’, the bacterium responsible for the black death, estimated to have wiped out one-third of the population of Europe, India and China seven hundred years ago.
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