‘Who We Are and How We Got Here’ Review: Ghosts in the GenomeThus, my latest Taki’s Magazine column is entitled “Ghosts of Africa.”
By John Hawks
April 10, 2018 6:25 p.m. ET
Mr. Hawks is a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
… Up to half of the ancestry of West African people may represent an ancient “ghost” population long diverged from other modern humans.
By the way, this would drive Hawks crazy, but ancient “ghost” populations whose existence is inferred statistically from more recent DNA but for whom physical evidence is missing … are more or less genuine “missing links.” One of Hawks’ objections to the old term “missing link” is that many fossils may represent not links to later populations but evolutionary dead ends. One of my objections to the term “missing link,” in contrast, would be that if somebody has indeed dug up a missing link, well, then it’s not missing anymore, now is it?
But these statistical ghost populations that we are only aware about due to patterns in the DNA of their descendants are both missing and are links.Reich’s industrial scale grave robbing and bone grinding operation doesn’t sit well with Hawks, who has pointed out on Twitter that in the future it probably won’t be necessary to grind up so many ancient bones to find out this info. Hawks’ implication is, apparently, that Reich’s hurry to be first is pushing him into methodologies that will be looked back on as, at best, heroic and more likely destructive, the way Schliemann’s urge to discover Troy in the 1850s through brute force excavation of an incredibly rich archaeological site seems a little much today.
One of the most interesting chapters concerns India. There, Mr. Reich and his co-workers have documented a series of migrations, starting 4,000 years ago, that brought Indo-European languages and peoples into the subcontinent from the northwest. The science paints a scenario that seemingly parallels events described in the “Rig Veda,” the 3,500-year-old collection of Sanskrit hymns. …
As we see Mr. Reich’s field developing, we also see his development as a scientist. He seems a contradiction: Rising to the pinnacle of human genetics, he nonetheless exhibits incredible naiveté. He is surprised when German scientists withdraw their names from a paper showing results uncomfortably close to pre-Nazi racial theories. He laments Native American donors who seek to limit how scientists may use their DNA samples, suggesting that scientists need to find “an approach that does not require obtaining permission from every possible interested group.” But at the same time, he decides against submitting his own DNA for examination, claiming that the genetics of Ashkenazi Jews like him is “overstudied.” …
But when geneticists drill into ancient bones to remove parts of the inner ears, reduce them to a fine powder and turn the results into numbers, what do they learn of the individual who lived and breathed so many thousands of years ago?