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Geneticist Searches for DNA of "Adam," the First Human

Hillary Mayell
National Geographic News
for National Geographic Channel
June 24, 2005
 
On TV: Don't miss HREF="http://www.nationalgeographic.com/channel/explorer/">Search for
Adam,
premiering on the National Geographic Channel (U.S.),
Sunday, June 26, 8 p.m. ET/PT.


For many of us, the word "genetics" conjures vague thoughts of disease, the human genome, and genetic engineering.

Spencer Wells thought "genetics" and forged a unique career that combines his love for history with his passion for biology. A geneticist, adventurer, author, filmmaker, and historian—the man adds new dimension to the term multi-tasking—he is using the cutting-edge of technology to explore human history.

He has traveled the world, collecting blood samples from people of far-flung cultures: Aborigines in Australia, the Chukchi tundra dwellers of Siberia, farmers in the hills of Afghanistan, and nomads in the deserts of Africa. By studying the DNA of modern humans, he seeks to learn who we are, where we traveled to populate the world, and how closely we are all related.

"Each drop of blood is essentially a historical document," Wells said. "Our DNA tells the story of the journey of our species."

New DNA studies suggest that all humans descended from a single African ancestor who lived some 60,000 years ago. To uncover the paths that lead from him to every living human, the National Geographic Society launched the Genographic Project, headed by Spencer Wells. The quest for "Adam" is the subject of a new television documentary that airs on the National Geographic Channel in the U.S. this Sunday.

The project is a five-year endeavor undertaken as a partnership between IBM and National Geographic. It will combine population genetics and molecular biology to trace the migration of humans from the time we first left Africa, 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, to the places where we live today.

Ten research centers around the world have received funding from the Waitt Family Foundation to collect and analyze blood samples from indigenous populations (such as aboriginal groups), many in remote areas. The Genographic Project hopes to collect more than a hundred thousand DNA samples to create the largest gene bank in the world. Members of the public are also being invited to participate.

"Our DNA tells a fascinating story of the human journey: how we are all related and how our ancestors got to where we are today," Wells said. "This project will show us some of the routes early humans followed to populate the globe and paint a picture of the genetic tapestry that connects us all."

Tracing Human History

"As often happens in science," said Wells, "technology has opened up a field to new ways of answering old questions—often providing startling answers."

One of the old questions that intrigued Wells was the question of human origins. Whether early humans evolved in Africa or elsewhere, when they began outward migration, and where they went, are issues that have been argued among archaeologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists for decades.

By analyzing genetic changes in the Y-chromosome of people in all regions of the world, Wells and colleagues concluded that all humans alive today are descended from a single African man.

"We're all effectively cousins, separated by 2,000 generations," he said.

In his book, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, Wells describes the exodus from Africa that began around 60,000 years ago, and the path we took to populate the world.

Following the southern coastline of Asia, the first early travelers crossed about 250 kilometers [155 miles] of sea, and colonized Australia by around 50,000 years ago. The Aborigines of Australia, Wells says, are the descendants of the first wave of migration out of Africa.

A second wave left Africa around 45,000 years ago and settled in the Middle East, with smaller groups going off to India, northern China, and southern China. As the glaciers of the Ice Age began to retreat around 40,000 years ago and temperatures warmed up, humans moved into Central Asia and multiplied quickly.

Small groups left Central Asia around 35,000 years ago for Europe. Around 20,000 years ago, another small group of Central Asians moved farther north, into Siberia and the Arctic Circle.

He and his colleagues' paper, published in the September 2003 issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, added evidence to the debate on the peopling of the Americas. The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation in North America dates to 11,500 radiocarbon years old. Artifacts at a site in Monte Verde, Chile, are in the 12,500-year-old range. However, there are scientists who believe there is some linguistic and archaeological evidence suggesting the possibility that people may have arrived as much as 30,000 years ago.

Mutations in the Y-chromosome of populations in North and South America put an upper limit on human arrival at somewhere between 18,000 to 15,000 years ago. "I would put the number at closer to 15,000," said Wells.

Legacy of Genghis Khan

In another study that looked at blood samples collected over a period of ten years from more than 40 populations living in and around the former Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, Wells and colleagues found that nearly 8 percent of the men living in the region carry nearly identical Y-chromosomes. That translates to roughly 16 million descendants living today.

Archaeological finds and texts describing the history and culture of the region provide some insight into how this one lineage could be so successful, said Wells.

Khan's empire at the time of his death extended across Asia. His military conquests frequently entailed the wholesale slaughter of the vanquished, wiping out many populations. Contemporary documents report that after a conquest, looting, pillaging, and rape were the spoils of war for all soldiers, but that Khan got first pick of the beautiful women. In addition, his male descendants were markedly prolific. They extended the empire and maintained power in the region for several hundred years, in a culture in which harems and concubines were the norm. Khan's eldest son is reported to have had 40 sons. His grandson, Kublai Khan, had 22 legitimate sons, and was said to add 30 virgins to his harem each year.

"This is a clear example that culture plays a very big role in patterns of genetic variation and diversity in human populations," said Wells.

Lost Empires

In addition to a general passion for history, Wells has an abiding interest in lost empires. One of his current projects involves trying to track down the Phoenicians, a civilization that extended from roughly 3000 B.C. to 332 B.C.

"There's remarkably little archaeological evidence of them, and yet they were the dominant culture of the time," said Wells. "Egyptian texts starting from about 1200 B.C. talk about marauding warriors arriving from the sea, yet we really have no idea who they were or where they came from and where they went."

The Phoenicians were a seafaring people who settled a number of independent city-states around the Mediterranean in modern-day countries Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Tunisia, Greece, and Spain. United by a common language, their alphabet became the prototype for the Greek and Roman alphabets; they were the first people to circumnavigate Africa, and may even have reached America.

But where did they come from and where did they go? For that we'll have to wait for the next installment of Spencer Wells' exploration.

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