The National Geographic Society this month announced an ambitious program to trace the history of human migration through the analysis of the DNA of indigenous peoples. The project will use sophisticated computer and laboratory technologies to identify segments of that DNA that can reveal the genetic links to ancient migratory populations.
In an auditorium at the National Geographic's Washington headquarters, project director Spencer Wells explained to Mongolian-born Battur Tumur what his DNA revealed.
"This traces its origin, of course, back to Africa," said Mr. Wells, "and it delineates an expansion out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago that followed a coastal route along the south coast of Asia. It reached Australia by around 45- to 50,000 years ago, and some of these individuals would have turned northward in East Asia, ultimately migrating back into Mongolia, which is where your ancestors come from. So it's a very typical Mongolian lineage."
Also typical, perhaps, in that his DNA indicates Mr. Tumur is a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan, the 12th century warrior, a hero to Mongolians and a prolific man who is said to have fathered thousands of children.
The five-year Genographic project, as it's called, aims to collect DNA using blood samples from 100,000 people around the world.
Using DNA to track migrations over not just years but millennia could provide a powerful new tool to scientists. National Geographic president John Fahey says that, until now, the best evidence came from the study of bones and rocks
"But now we have new technologies and new sciences that can help us as well in terms of really understanding the migration and origins of man. And I think it's a perfect companion to the fine work that we've been doing with paleoanthropology for years."
Building on the record established through other disciplines, scientists involved in the Genographic project hope to learn more about how humans spread out from origins in East Africa to become the diverse species we are today. Project director Spencer Wells says a key part of the answer is included in our genetic heritage.
"Now, where DNA actually carries this story -- written in its code of bases A, C, G and T -- it shows us the connections between people all over the world, serving as a kind of genetic thread, connecting people who didn't realize, perhaps, that they were related," he said.
Ted Waitt, whose family foundation is helping fund the project, stressed the urgency of the effort as traditional ways of life disappear. "The ethnic populations this amazing team are going to study are indeed reflections of humanity in all its uniqueness and splendor," stressed Mr. Waitt. "Exploding urban populations and homogenizing effect of globalization endangers many of these cultures. And while genetic clues are still present and likely most pure in their DNA, the snapshot this research is attempting to take will not be present forever."
American Indians are among the indigenous people who will participate in the project. Phil Bluehouse of the Navaho Nation in Arizona choked up after hearing of his ancestral journey out of Africa, as told by his DNA.
"It's always been a dream," he said. "It's always been something that was in me, that finally I was able to say, yeah - it's been confirmed. It's been there genetically, and that's what the genetics was trying to tell me, that you did come from somewhere. And I think that I did shed tears, and it was tears of joy because making that connection is -- I think it's very important."
Members of the public can have their own DNA analyzed for about $100. Part of that money will help fund the collection of DNA from the indigenous peoples, and for cultural preservation. Project leaders say one of its key goals is to raise awareness of the pressures facing indigenous groups. One of its challenges will most certainly be convincing the indigenous groups they approach of their good intentions.