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23 April 2006
Study of human migration over 60 000 years

A project investigating human migration over the last 60 000 years will be discussed at a conference in South Africa next month. The Genographic Project will take DNA samples from 100 000 people belonging to indigenous populations around the world. The hope is to demonstrate the migration routes followed by anatomically modern humans as they moved out of Africa - the origin of all humans alive today - and spread across the world.
     The Genographic Project is a joint effort by the National Geographic Society, the Waitt Family Foundation and IBM. The director of the project, Dr Spencer Wells, said that before this project began, only about 10 000 people had been tested for genetic markers, meaning that population geneticists and other scientists only had a "bare bones" picture of human migration. Asked whether human populations had not become so mixed by migration - especially in the last 200 years - that a clear picture could not be obtained, Wells said: "We focus on indigenous people, who may have been isolated for some considerable time. They may speak a unique language, and they retain genetic patterns more consistent with what we see in their ancestors."
     The conference will begin on May 8 at the Maropeng Conference Centre at the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg. The conference, which is to review progress since the launch of the project almost exactly a year ago in Washington DC, is not open to the public, but it will be followed on Thursday, May 11 in Cape Town by two events at the V & A Waterfront. The first is a scientific "round table", an academic discussion open to interested researchers, and the second, a public lecture in the evening. Both will be attended by all the principal researchers and their teams. "We see this as the 'moon shot' of anthropology, using genetics to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of human history," said Wells.  "Our DNA carries a story that is shared by everyone. Over the next five years we'll be deciphering that story, which is now in danger of being lost as people migrate and mix to a much greater extent than they have in the past."

Sources: Sapa, Iol.co.za (20 April 2006)

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