The first people in North America came from Asia 10,000 years ago. In "Origin," author Jennifer Raff fills in the blanks on the America’s first residents, when they traveled and where they settled.
Raff is a professor with a doctarate in genetics and biological anthropology who loves her work so much that she wrote a fascinating history book for the rest of us. She delves into lifestyle, race and DNA.
CapRadio host Donna Apidone talked with Dr. Raff and shared some of the conversation on Insight.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On her passion for archaeology
One of the things I wanted to demonstrate in my book was that the real history, what really happened, is so much more interesting than, you know, silly stories about aliens or Atlantians or whatever. The indigenous people of the Americas have incredible, rich history, and it deserves to be understood. And I really want the general public or anyone who reads this book, who is not necessarily a specialist, to have the same feelings of excitement and interest and respect for these ancient traditions that continue on into the present day that I feel when I go into the lab every day.
On movement of early peoples on the West Coast
I want to be careful about ascribing intentions or worldviews onto the people. I want to be cautious about that. We see a mixture of staying in one place and a mixture of movement and migration all throughout history and all throughout all kinds of human groups. But we always see some people moving, right? And that is how humans spread across the globe.
In the case of the Americas, specifically, we’re talking about a coastal movement, by boat, up and down, people living on and just off of the coast and then traveling up and down the coast via boat. They would have been encountering resources that would have been pretty similar all along the coast. This is something known as the Kelp Highway, and it suggests that travel would have been facilitated because people were not being slowed down by needing to adapt to new environments and new resources. They knew what they could expect to find along this coast, right? There would have been marine resources — marine animals, plants, kelp, a relatively consistent climate — all the way up and down the coast. And so it probably facilitated this rapid, rapid migration.
On cultural connection vs. DNA
If you look at present-day indigenous peoples, they’re genetically quite diverse, with ancestry from populations all around the world. Some of their ancestry, greater proportions or lesser proportions, derive from the First Peoples in the Americas. But what’s really important to understand for non-native peoples is that if you are indigenous, your membership in a tribe or your affiliation with a community is not dependent on how much genetic ancestry you have from the First Peoples. It has to do more with cultural belonging, with political associations, with cultural associations, with your connections to a people.
And geneticists like myself have no business saying who is Native and who is not Native, who is a member of a tribe, who is not a member of a tribe. It’s simply not a question that’s within our purview. This is why I caution people against thinking about using commercial ancestry tests as a way of identifying themselves as Native or not. If you are indigenous, and if you have family tradition of that, that is a whole different question. I see, all too often, white folks like myself trying to identify as Native through the use of these tests, and it’s simply not appropriate.
On the incomplete factor of DNA in deep history
When we want to really understand the deep past, we can use those markers, those lineages, as a way to understand them, but they only give us, as I say in the book, parts of the puzzle, if you think about the past as a giant puzzle. They give you the edge pieces and maybe a few interior pieces, but it’s not enough to see all the details of the picture. You might be able to guess what the picture is from those. Histories reconstructed from mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA are not inaccurate, but they’re definitely incomplete.
What you really need to get a real understanding, a comprehensive understanding of all of the complexities, is the nuclear DNA. That gives you those interior pieces of the puzzle. It gives you a history of many, many, many ancestors. By combining these nuclear genomes from present-day, living peoples with ancestral peoples, we can get a very detailed picture of populations moving, populations staying in the same place, the effects of natural selection on peoples in a particular region, in a particular environment, the deep history, the impact of gene flow from our cousins, the Neanderthals, the genetic mix that some populations might have gone through when they moved in environment or experienced a great hardship. All of these stories together of all of these many ancestors really give us an extraordinarily complicated picture, one which we’re still trying to puzzle out.
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