"Emerging Explorer" Uses DNA to Unlock Our History

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2004

Spencer Wells has been named by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer, one of a new generation of scientists who show promise. The program is supported by Microsoft.

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"Each drop of blood is essentially a historical document," said Wells.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

Wells has recently been named as an Emerging Explorer, a joint project of the National Geographic Society and Microsoft.

The National Geographic Society has a history of supporting young individuals who show promise but are still early in their careers; the Society's support of primatologist Jane Goodall is a frequently used example. The Emerging Explorers program is an effort to continue this tradition.

Thus far, six explorers have been named; each individual will receive a grant of U.S. $10,000 to $25,000 to use toward their research. The goal is to name eight a year. Microsoft is contributing sponsor funding.

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 man who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago.

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