The Human Family Tree. Presented by Spencer Wells. Directed by Chad Cohen, narrated by Kevin Bacon and produced by National Geographic, DVD format. 90 minutes.
The Genographic Project
National Geographic's The Human Family Tree is a 90 minute DVD on the current results of the ongoing Genographic Project, which first aired on the National Geographic Channel August 30, 2009. The program, narrated by actor Kevin Bacon and featuring a raft of scholars involved in the project, is a fascinating presentation of what the studies of modern people's genetic structure (DNA) have told us about the ancient migration patterns of our ancestors.
The Genographic Project is a five-year-long (2005-2010) study funded by National Geographic and IBM to collect human DNA from people all over the world, and analyze those data to determine the various general pathways humans took out of Africa.
Human beings evolved in Africa about 160,000 years ago, and lived only in Africa until around 60,000 years ago when we started to emigrate, in little groups, in different directions. There is evidence of a couple of false starts before that—Skhul Cave in Israel and Jwalapuram in India—but they don't seem to have left much DNA evidence among us.
The traces of the migration patterns are found in modern DNA, passed down from mother to sons and daughters (called mitochondrial DNA) and from father to son (Y Chromosome DNA)—remember, women don't have Y chromosomes. The oldest DNA evidence from mitochondrial DNA is Scientific Eve (a.k.a. Mitochondrial Eve), some 160,000 years ago in Africa, and the oldest DNA evidence from Y Chromosome DNA is Scientific Adam, some 60,000 years ago also in Africa. Our two patterns of DNA contain traces of tiny changes in the DNA experienced by our ancient mothers and ancient fathers, and that is what project director Spencer Wells uses to identify our deep ancestors.
New York City Borough of Queens
The program features project director Wells, as he looks at the DNA of a group of people from a neighborhood in New York City's Queens borough, and maps their (I would assume) mitochondrial DNA. To date, the Genographic Project has collected over 200,000 DNA samples from people all over the world, and Wells and his associates have used that data to construct ancient migration patterns of those groups of people. What The Human Family Tree does is illustrate the modern human end results of that study. The DVD illustrates how the complex our past is, and confuses the heck out of several people in New York. Many discovered that their mitochrondrial data shows that one of their founding ancestors came from Africa along a specific path that may have nothing to do with what they consider their current ethnic category.
A handful of archaeological sites and scholars are featured in the program, including Michael Petraglia at Jwalapuram (India), Clive Finlayson at Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) and Dennis Jenkins at Paisley Cave (US).
An accompanying website contains tons of information, including the latest results from the Genographic Project. You can also find an opportunity to buy a kit to find out your own ancient genetic family tree ($US 99 for one, $198 for both).
I enjoyed this program, but I was left with several questions. Not being a geneticist (cough), I don't really understand how DNA traces migration pathways—I have a fuzzy idea about how it might be done, but the program doesn't go into that. At the end of the day, I'd have liked to understand that a bit better, but that's probably asking a lot. And, after all, it would likely be a dull exposition for anybody but us archaeology nerds, so it may have been a wise decision to omit it.
But if you're willing to accept Wells' theories at face value—and actually, I do, I'm just curious about the nuts and bolts—the program is a fascinating look at ancient migration patterns and how they are not, by and large, reflected in the perceived ethnic differences of today. Well worth the time.