By Leticia Cuevas May 10, 2010
I grew up in south-eastern Idaho and am a first generation American. Over the years, I've heard the story of how my father came to the US in search of a better life for his family, and how a year later my mother and three older siblings made the journey across the border. When asked where my family is from I know the answer; however, in reading Steve Olson's Mapping Human History, it appears that the entire human race is my family. This makes me ask: How did my immediate lineage get to Mexico? Olson offers good explanations of how all human beings came from one common ancestor and how early modern people were able to migrate.
Mapping Human History is a detailed narrative written by Steve Olson, an acclaimed science writer, in which he describes how modern humans evolved. The book begins with a brief, yet thorough explanation of genetics (DNA) and how everyone descends from one common group of ancestors and within that the matrilineal line back to the nearest common Eve. We are then able to track human migration across continents over the past 150,000 years. Meeting with many researchers along the way, Olson is able to provide explanations of genetic diversion and diversity in each continent. We watch the development of agriculture, towns as well as migration from continent to continent. Olson is arguing against racism and showing us we are biologically one family; where we differ is in culture. As the end of the book he discusses the Human Genome Project, an attempt to understand the past and future of our species. In Sunday School, some are taught lovely stories about how the earth was created in 7 days, land, water, skies, and man and woman. These are myths that have no scientific basis and are not capable of demonstration or prediction about the future or control of ourselves which evolutoin, migration, even the story of language does. Olson's explanation of mitochondrial DNA is the clearest I've ever read. It should be understand that when Olson traces all the present people on the earth back through a matrilineal line that goes back to the nearest common woman, that does not mean she was the only woman on earth. The meaning is this Eve's was the mitochondria that lasted as this and that branch of the candelabra fell away. Small parts of our genes are responsible for individua outward looks. It seems to me ironic that so much discrimination and cruelty have been practiced against African people (as dark-skinned) from whom we all descend.
What really intrigued me in the book was the story of the migrations. Many factors led to human beings migrated from Africa. He ties the evidence of archealogy and geology (as well as sailing) to that of language to reinforce the story. He argues that language itself, its development was an important reason migration could go forward as also the development of agriculture and passing down information. While our brains developed, we also socialized more and this too was a factor in human survival. People coooperated in an endeavour. For example, when human beings travelled across large bodies of water, a boat of some sort was needed. People communicated as they built things, as they hunted and gathered too. In the chapter, "Encounters with Others," we see archealogical findings which show similar man-made tools have been found across huge stretches of land.
The development of agriculture was another motive for migration. In the chapter, "Agriculture, Civilization and Ethncity," we see how agriculture transformed human life, made areas dense with people so that crowded conditions would make them spread out. They would also take their goods and be confident they could grow food again. Farms spread. More adversely, agriculture encouraged slavery, people selling other people as driven workers.
This book tells a long and involved and wonderful if sometimes sobering story -- because so many individuals seem to have been deeply hurt by the false ideas others have, by others' urge to dominate and exploit different people they defined as inferior. I feel the book is though on the whole hopeful. I have a better understanding now of how my ancestors must have come to America; so my father's story is just a tiny fragment of a bigger one.
Mapping Human History is thoughtful educational reading for those wanting to know the past: from genetics, archealogy, history, geology, and politics too. The drawback is how much Olson must speculate; still the book's outlook is one which if spread would spread more humanity and compassion. Science is shown to be on the side of tolerance since we are all one family and we are more alike than we realize. Most of our bodies all over the world are alike; its tiny outward features that are so emphasized. This book thus makes you realize race is a figment of the imagination, of false perception and ignorance. We are all also the children of immigrants.