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HOWARD HUGHES MEDICAL INSTITUTE—Scientists once could reconstruct humanity's distant past only from the mute testimony of ancient settlements, bones, and artifacts.
No longer. Now there's a powerful new approach for illuminating the world before the dawn of written history - reading the actual genetic code of our ancient ancestors. Two papers* published in the journal Nature on February 21, 2018, more than double the number of ancient humans whose DNA has been analyzed and published to 1,336 individuals - up from just 10 in 2014.
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The new flood of genetic information represents a "coming of age" for the nascent field of ancient DNA, says lead author David Reich, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Harvard Medical School - and it upends cherished archeological orthodoxy. "When we look at the data, we see surprises again and again and again," says Reich.
Together with his lab's previous work and that of other pioneers of ancient DNA, the Big Picture message is that our prehistoric ancestors were not nearly as homebound as once thought. "There was a view that migration is a very rare process in human evolution," Reich explains. Not so, says the ancient DNA. Actually, Reich says, "the orthodoxy - the assumption that present-day people are directly descended from the people who always lived in that same area - is wrong almost everywhere."
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Instead, "the view that's emerging - for which David is an eloquent advocate - is that human populations are moving and mixing all the time," says John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago.
In one of the new papers, Reich and a cast of dozens of collaborators chart the spread of an ancient culture known by its stylized bell-shaped pots, the so-called Bell Beaker phenomenon. This culture first spread between Iberia and central Europe beginning about 4,700 years ago....
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