A Genetic History Of The Americas By Jennifer Raff — Review

A fascinating overview of our current knowledge of the Peopling of the Americas based on scientific evidence from a number of disciplines along with illuminating discussions of where and why controversies still exist

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When I was in grade school, I was taught that the Native Peoples of the Americas arrived in the New World after traipsing across the now-submerged Bering Land Bridge around ten thousand years ago, and that was the end of that story. I spent a lot of time contemplating what life might have been like for these intrepid explorers: the intense wind and cold, the towering glaciers, the lack of hand-warmers, the dearth of anything green to eat.

As I read further, I discovered that scientists barely knew more than what I was originally told about the Peopling of the Americas. But thanks to cutting-edge DNA technologies, the information we have now is rapidly growing. As you might imagine, this mystery is a topic of intense research and amazing discoveries. For example, we now think that anatomically modern humans arrived in the Americas at least 37,000 years ago (ref) — much longer ago than originally thought. Additionally, at least some of these early people lived in relative isolation for many thousands of years in the now-submerged ‘lost subcontinent’ of Beringia. And the genetic data indicates that Native Peoples arrived in the Americas in more than one wave.

Now the public can accompany scientists on this exciting intellectual journey, thanks to anthropological geneticist Jennifer Raff, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas with more than 14 years of experience in researching ancient and modern human DNA from the Americas. Her book, Origin: A Genetic History Of The Americas (Twelve Books, 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK) details what we do know and how we know it, what we don’t know, and why it’s so complicated to answer what seems like a simple question: where did New World Native Peoples come from and when did they arrive?

The reasons scientists don’t know the answers to these questions are abundant and complex. First, the Clovis culture, named for its distinct spearheads, and stone and bone tools found in close association with Pleistocene animal fossils, was brief: it popped up suddenly in the archaeological record, and disappeared about 200 years later, leaving few tools to unearth and ponder.

Second, ancient DNA (aDNA) is very difficult to recover and to work with, especially when the source materials — typically teeth and bones — were buried in warm, wet environments for thousands of years, requiring meticulous lab work to obtain it and to correctly piece it together.

Speaking of genetics, I particularly enjoyed learning that some of the most compelling genetics clues regarding the origins and movements of Indigenous Peoples throughout the Americas are coming from their closest companions, their dogs. By examining canine aDNA, scientists are learning important things about their human companions, such as the existence of a mystery group of humans that occupied Beringia earlier than 22,000 years ago. Although we don’t yet have any DNA from this mysterious group of humans, we are fairly certain they were genetically distinct from both the Ancient Beringians and the Ancestral Native Americans.

Another reason for our current uncertainty about the origins of Indigenous Peoples is their reliance upon oral histories rather than written records of their travels.

“With some notable exceptions, Native Americans preserved their histories in oral, rather than written, stories”, Professor Raff writes. “European colonists did not view these oral traditions as equivalent to their own histories.”

Tragically, some of these oral histories were lost when the governments of the USA and Canada ruthlessly destroyed these Indigenous languages and cultures. Of those languages that still survive, we are discovering that modern aDNA analyses often match closely and support the histories reported by various Indigenous nations.

Of course, not to be overlooked in this story are the arrogant and often criminal ways that white settlers treated Indigenous Peoples. The repressive history of the dominant white culture against Indigenous Peoples still makes working together towards a common goal into a tenuous exercise. Even scientists are not exempt: Professor Raff provides readers with a reasonably complete account of the main abusers, many of whom were prominent in their fields, and how their actions damaged current attempts to work collaboratively with many Indigenous communities.

Despite the many challenges, Professor Raff presents an thoughtful, up-to-date synthesis and personal account of our current knowledge of how people originally arrived in the Americas. This important and readable book is a comprehensive overview of the science and the ethics involved in better understanding the cultures and history of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. Origin is the best book I’ve ever read on this challenging and fascinating topic, and one of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Highly recommended.

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