When Alex Haley published Roots in 1976, he spurred a nationwide craze in genealogy. People everywhere were poking around cemeteries, invading county courthouses and asking Great Aunt Millie if she still had the family Bible. With luck, a person might trace their lineage to the old country, eight or nine generations back. A lot has changed in 30 years. With the ability to map human DNA has come the capability to trace human ancestry and movements for the last 170,000 years. In Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project, Spencer Wells, neatly summarizes the science of DNA sequencing and shows how the technology is used to determine population genetics slight variations in DNA that define individual humans as members of specific genetic groups. These haplogroups, which are traceable either through female or male ancestors, reveal not whether a great-great-great uncle was a pirate, but whether a family's ancient ancestors migrated through Eastern Europe or Central Asia. By assembling databases of DNA from people across the globe, the Genographic Project funded by the National Geographic Society, IBM and the Wait Society is attempting to map the origins and migration pathways of our species.

Through individual examples, Wells, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, tells what has already been discovered about our distant past. So far, the project has confirmed much of what archaeology and anthropology had already revealed: that humans arose in Africa and spread around the world, with local populations changing slightly in adaptation to their environment. The multidisciplinary confirmation of what was known is only the beginning. If the Genographic Project compiles a large enough database, many outstanding questions could be answered, such as: Did Europeans help colonize the Americas? Or, did early humans interbreed with Neanderthals? Wells ends the book with an invitation to take part in the project by purchasing a participation kit and submitting a DNA sample for analysis and cataloguing, with results available confidentially through the Internet. This is a rare chance to not only learn about ourselves, but to contribute to a worldwide scientific experiment.

Chris Scott writes from Nashville, where he migrated from Michigan.

comments powered by Disqus