The Genographic Project


The National Geographic Society, IBM, geneticist Spencer Wells, and the Waitt Family Foundation have launched the Genographic Project, a five-year effort to understand the human journey—where we came from and how we got to where we live today. This effort will map humanity’s genetic journey through the ages.

The fossil record fixes human origins in Africa, but little is known about the great journey that took Homo sapiens to the far reaches of the Earth. How did we, each of us, end up where we are? Why do we appear in such a wide array of different colors and features? Such questions are even more amazing in light of genetic evidence that we are all related—descended from a common African ancestor who lived only 60,000 years ago.

Though eons have passed, the full story remains clearly written in our genes. When DNA is passed from one generation to the next, most of it is recombined by the processes that give each of us our individuality.

But some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations which become “genetic markers.” These markers allow geneticists to trace our common evolutionary timeline back through the ages. Different populations carry distinct markers. Following them through the generations reveals a genetic tree on which today’s many diverse branches may be followed ever backward to their common African root.

My personal results identify me as a member of haplogroup I, a lineage defined by a genetic marker called M170. M170 arose out of M89, which in turn arose out of marker M168.

M168 can be traced back to a single individual, a “Eurasian Adam.” This African man lived some 31,000 to 79,000 years ago. He is the common ancestor of every non-African person living today.

M89 appeared some 45,000 years ago in North Africa or the Middle East. Some 90-95% of all non-Africans are decendants of this group. Many people of this lineage remained in the Middle East, but others continued their movement and followed the grasslands through Iran to the vast steppes of Central Asia. With much of the Earth’s water frozen in massive ice sheets, the era’s vast steppes stretched from eastern France to Korea.

A group of M89 decendants moved north from the Middle East to Anatolia and the Balkans. Though their numbers were likely small, genetic traces of their journey are still found today.

The M170 marker first appeared in the Middle East some 20,000 years ago. Its subsequent spread into southeastern Europe may have accompanied the expansion of the properous Gravettian culture. These Upper Paleolithic people used effective communal hunting techniques and developed art notable for voluptuous female carvings often dubbed “Venus” figures. Today, M170 is widespread in southeastern and central Europe, though it is most common in the Balkans.

One possibility is that this lineage is tied to the mid-first millennium B.C. Celtic culture. Celtic expansion from central Europe to the west may have dispersed this lineage to many of its present locals.

The Project has an atlas that depicts the various migration paths. It is incredibly interesting to trace through the timelines to see the paths. It presents history as a macro level.

There are 7 haplogroups in Europe: H (47 percent of the population); J (17); U (11); T (9); K (6); X (6); V (5); I (2).

The I haplogroup is sometime refered to as the “Viking” haplotype, found in Scandanavia and parts of Ireland, Scotland, and England, where it’s thought to denote descent from the Viking invaders. However, distribution of the haplogroup does extend beyond those areas, mostly northwestern Europe.

Haplogroup I is divided into three groups: I, I1 and I1a. Based on my specific Short Tandem Repeats(STRs), I fall into the the I1a lineage. The domain populated by this group seems to be narrow enough to suggest a Saxon origin. Given that my father’s side of the family is from Thuringa, which is adjacent to Saxony, this seems to make sense.


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