David Reich wore a hooded, white suit, cream-colored clogs, and a blue surgical mask. Only his eyes were visible as he inspected the bone fragments on the counter.
Dr. Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, pointed out a strawberry-sized chunk: “This is from a 4,000-year-old site in Central Asia — from Uzbekistan, I think.”
He moved down the row. “This is a 2,500-year-old sample from a site in Britain. This is Bronze Age Russian, and these are Arabian samples. These people would have never met each other in time or space.”
Dr. Reich hopes that his team of scientists and technicians can find DNA in these bones. Odds are good that they will.
In less than three years, Dr. Reich’s laboratory has published DNA from the genomes of 938 ancient humans — more than all other research teams working in this field combined. The work in his lab has reshaped our understanding of human prehistory.
“They often answer age-old questions and sometimes provide astonishing unanticipated insights,” said Svante Paabo, the director of the Max Planck Institute of Paleoanthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Dr. Reich, Dr. Paabo and other experts in ancient DNA are putting together a new history of humanity, one that runs in parallel with the narratives gleaned from fossils and written records. In Dr. Reich’s research, he and his colleagues have shed light on the peopling of the planet and the spread of agriculture, among other momentous events.
In a book to be published next week, “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” Dr. Reich, 43, explains how advances in DNA sequencing and analysis have helped this new field take off. [Continue reading…]