Sunday, December 04, 2022

‘Origin’ explores the controversial science of the first Americans

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jennifer raff
Twelve, $30

The scientific understanding of the American people is as unstable as the Western Hemisphere ever was. Skeletal remains, cultural artifacts such as stone tools and, increasingly, microscopic fragments of ancient DNA have sparked heated debate about which of the many origin stories the available evidence best describes. Additional conflict stems from a tragic scientific legacy of the neglect and exploitation of indigenous groups whose ancestry is on the line.

Anthropologist and geneticist Jennifer Raff tells him about the state of this fascinating and turbulent research area Origin: A Genetic History of America,

Raff seeks to tell the most accurate, if still incomplete, story of how humans settled the Americas by integrating research on ancient and modern DNA with archaeological finds. She refers to the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived as the first peoples, a term preferred by some of their indigenous allies.

Most researchers think that the ancestors of the first people lived in Siberia and East Asia during the Ice Age 20,000 years ago or more, Raff explains. A common view holds that those groups eventually crossed the now-submerged expanse of land – the Bering Land Bridge – that connected northeastern Asia and North America. Analysis of ancient human DNA indicates that these migrants gave rise to populations living south of the ice sheet that spread across northern North America about 80,000 to 11,000 years ago. But much remains unclear.

Raff described how, when and where people first entered the US in several competing models. One view holds that Ice Age Siberians, known from archaeological finds, reached North America between 16,000 and 14,000 years ago and, within a few millennia, traveled south across the continent through gaps in the melting ice sheet. Those settlers probably founded the Clovis culture, which is known for its distinctive stone points (SN: 1/15/22, p. 22,

Another view argues that people came to the Americas much earlier, 30,000 years or more ago. A minority of researchers in this camp argue that by 130,000 years ago settlers may also have reached Southern California (SN: 5/27/17, p. 7,

But archaeological and genetic evidence are best suited for a third model, Raff writes. In this scenario, the First Peoples arrived in the Americas as early as 18,000 years ago, and perhaps 20,000 years ago. These people – including groups that were not predecessors of the Clovis people – probably traveled by boat or canoe along the west coast of North America, arriving in South America about 14,000 years ago (SN: 12/26/15, p. 10,

Raff expresses the scientific rationale for these settlement scenarios in clear, non-technical language. But her description comes to the fore when she describes how geneticists, with a few appreciable exceptions, regard indigenous groups as afterthoughts or passive DNA donors.

One example pertains to a nearly 9,000-year-old skeleton found in Washington state in 1996, called Kennewick Man, or The Ancient One. That discovery sparked a legal battle between scientists who wanted to study the man’s remains, and local tribes who intended to re-bury their ancestors. Scientists won. Years later, geneticists consulting with a tribe in dispute reached an agreement to compare the tribe’s DNA with that of the ancient one—and demonstrate an ancestral connection—before its bones were interred by the tribe. (SN: 7/25/15, p. 6,

Raff writes, many Native American groups, especially in North America, cherish bad memories of genetic researchers who misled them about the goals of the study or never met with them to discuss the DNA results. As a result, indigenous communities today often refuse to participate in genetic studies. Only a commitment by the researchers to cooperate with those groups would resolve this impasse, they argue, as was the case with the ancient one.

Raff also provides a glimpse into how she came to study ancient DNA. A lifelong love of cave exploration, started as a child in a cave club, revered Ruff for the extensive preparation and intense meditation at this time. It proved essential for her to conduct a number of precise laboratory procedures to extract DNA from bone samples.

After noting that some large, well-funded laboratories dominated ancient DNA research, Raff left unexplored the implications of that concentration of resources for studying ancient human migrations. But his book gives a balanced view of what is known about First Peoples and how scientists might have collaborated with their modern-day descendants.

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