Using advances in DNA sequencing, the geneticist shows the effects of migrations and the mongrel nature of humanity in this fascinating study
“Arrival of Beaker folk changed Britain for ever, ancient DNA study shows”, ran a Guardian headline in February, concerning the people whose ancestry lay in central Europe and further east to the steppes. Now comes the author of that study, Harvard geneticist David Reich, with his book that gives us, at last, the first draft of a true history of the last 5,000 years.
Genetics first started to complement the work of archaeologists and linguists in the 1990s in the work of Reich’s mentor, the Italian-born population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. But genetics was the poor relation at the time because its data was so thin. Not any more. The genome is a palimpsest that retains strong traces of the past, so current populations can reveal something of previous population movements. What has changed everything has been the ability, beginning as recently as 2010, to sequence DNA directly from ancient human remains, sometimes as old as 40,000 years.