Archeogenetics: reconstructing the history of mankind
The University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group has led the way in developing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as a tool for reconstructing the dispersal history of mankind. Results include a new model of the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and re-evaluations of the settlement history of Europe, Asia and the Pacific. This work has been pivotal in the emergence of commercial genetic ancestry testing and has helped the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) formulate guidelines for the industry.
Answering the big questions about human history
The Archaeogenetics Research Group has been at the forefront of the on-going process of establishing and developing archaeogenetic methodologies. These have been applied to many of the big questions about human history, such as the settlement of the world, the spread of farming and the impact of climate change.
Tracking the movements of early humans across the globe
The group’s research shows that European genetic patterns were shaped mainly by climate change at the end of the last Ice Age. This challenges the established view that European ancestry traces primarily to the Neolithic. It has also shown that the consensus “out of Taiwan” model for the origins of island Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders is inadequate, pointing to major dispersals accompanying sea-level rises following the Ice Age, reaching New Guinea around 60,000 years ago.
How did modern humans move on from Africa?
Perhaps most significantly, the researchers have proposed a new model for the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, suggesting a single expansion along the southern coast of Asia around 60,000 years ago. This model challenges both a single route through northeast Africa and the possibility of multiple dispersals, and has become widely recognised as the consensus since its publication in 2005.
Providing guidance for the growing genetic ancestry testing industry
Genetic ancestry testing companies have emerged in the past decade as a global market with over half a million customers, and they are underpinned by the published mtDNA sequences, lineage distribution details, data analyses and interpretations developed by the group’s researchers and their colleagues. Professor Martin B Richards, head of the Archeogenetics Research Group, has played a key role in providing guidance for the industry to ensure research is used responsibly, warning of the dangers in an article in The Guardian as early as 2003. With Richards’ input the HGC published revised advice for the general public, pointing out the inherent limitations of genetic ancestry tests in 2010. This led to the HGC publishing a framework including guidance on genetic ancestry tests.
Archeogenetic research underpins BBC TV documentaries
Richards has acted as consultant for the BBC Two series The Incredible Human Journey (2m viewers), and the first episode of BBC One’s Andrew Marr’s History of the World (3.85m viewers). Viewers commented that both programmes changed their view of human evolution, and the Andrew Marr series is now used in schools as a teaching aid.
‘When I discovered… that every person now alive who is not a sub-Saharan African shares ancestry from a single tribe that left Africa some 70,000 years ago… well, that felt like a wonderful place to begin.’
ANDREW MARR, JOURNALIST AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR