A Short History of Humanity: How Migration Made Us Who We Are

Over the last decade, revolutions in the scientific analysis of archaeological material have allowed us to delve deeper into the origins and migrations of modern humans. Through the lens of Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and journalist Thomas Trappe, this volume brings the nascent discipline of archaeogenetics – the study of ancient genomes – to the forefront, and in a vast sweep through the Stone Age to the present day shows how genetics, like pottery fragments or ancient texts, has allowed us to piece together the journey of humankind.

The initial chapters introduce the complex world of genome sequencing. Forensic terms and nomenclature are explained in excellent concision as the authors guide us through the key branches of archaeogenetics. Yet the story really begins with Krause’s discovery of a new archaic human lineage – the Denisovans – that diverged from the Neanderthals c.500,000 years ago. With a sprinkling of personal anecdotes, his first-hand account offers an exciting window into this ground-breaking discovery. This chapter moves on to discuss how exploring the genetic relationships between the Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern humans has revolutionised our understanding of how they migrated, interacted, interbred, and possibly even communicated.

The authors’ ability to blend information from diverse sources is particularly impressive. Interwoven with scientific discussion of the Ice Ages are artefacts from our Aurignacian and Gravettian ancestors, such as Venus figurines, and paintings from Chauvet Cave in southern France.

With the close of the last glacial period c.9500 BC, wildlife and the human population flourished in the Near East. Hunter-gatherers in this region shifted away from their nomadic lifestyle, and began raising livestock, farming crops, and producing pottery. This was the beginning of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’, which spread through multiple waves of migration from the Near East into Eurasia. These farmers left behind genetic and also material traces, as exemplified in the monumental rock complex of Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia.

Chapter 7 follows the emergence of the first advanced civilisations, as bronze technology brought the possibility of new weapons and tools, and allowed for increased interregional trade along with competition for resources and craft expertise.

The final chapters pivot towards the evolution of modern diseases, which arose through close contact with animals and increased mobility. Discussion spans the social impact of leprosy and the analysis of tuberculosis victims from ancient Peru, and offers an in-depth focus on plague – from its Stone Age origins to the horrors of the Black Death.

Yet despite the overarching focus on what genetics can tell us about the journey of humanity, the authors emphasise that ‘human beings are born travelers; we are made to wander.’ Through its humanistic slant, the book captures how cultures, nations, and ethnicities cannot be reduced to a genome.

Review by Florence Chilver.
A Short History of Humanity: How Migration Made Us Who We Are, Johannes Krause & Thomas Trappe, WH Allen, £14.99, Hardback, ISBN 978-0753554944.