Mapping Human History

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Mapping Human History by Steve Olson

Mapping Human History by Steve Olson


Steve Olson is a research reporter, graduated with a BA in physics from Yale University in 1978 and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He has worked for the National Academy of Sciences, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Institute for Genomic Research. He is the scribe of some publications, including Shaping the Future and Biotechnology, and has in writing for the Atlantic Monthly, Science, and other magazines. His writing has acquired him a reputation for cracking the often mystifying cipher of biological research for the lay reader. (Hughes 2008)

Mapping Human History, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, is a determined overview of 150,000 years of human history. Olson values new findings in genetics to discover the sources of mankind. Sweeping over the countries, he starts with an explication of our African sources and pathways the migration patterns of our forefathers round the globe. His conclusions often withstand acknowledged thinking and lift contentious questions about the future of humanity.


EXCAVATING the human genome for signs to human evolution and migrations is a something of a battlefield. The ground directions of this new science—known as historical genetics or archaeogenetics are still being worked out, and there is vigorous disagreement about which advances are best. So where can you find a balanced overview of what has been achieved?

In the bright if idiosyncratic Where Do We Come From? Jan Klein and Naoyuki Takahata make their sympathies plain: get it from the horse's mouth. Science writing, they contend, is best finished by practicing researchers, because reporters bring with them “sensationalism, superficiality and ephemerality”.

I am not so sure. Scientists in an emerging discipline inescapably favor their own viewpoint, and at lowest can end up the sole champion of their own epic narrative of discovery. A good research reporter, on the other hand, will converse to dozens of researchers and can arbitrate between distinct points of view. (Olson 2003)

Steve Olson's Mapping Human History is a flawless demonstration of this. The acknowledgements sheet is a Who's Who of historical genetics, and remainder of the publication fulfils that promise: it's the most balanced, accessible and up-to-date review of the area currently available. Moreover, Olson encompasses individual and anthropological observations that add to, other than distract from, his story. For demonstration, his discussion of the difficulties faced by a woman growing up in South Africa with a Sotho mother and a European dad not only enlivens the text but furthermore vividly brings out the history of human dispersal.

Olson's trip of human variation begins (as did modern humans) in sub-Saharan Africa about 65,000 years before and winds up in Hawaii. Olson does not dwell on outworn debates for example “out of Africa” versus “multiregional” sources for modern humans but concentrates on the probable paths the early moderns took as they shifted out to load up the world. Archaeology and palaeoclimatology supply the prime clues and the minutia ...
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