Our greatest journey

By David Winter 07/07/2011

The Symphony of Science series of videos is probably the best justification for the continued existence of auto-tune. The latest of these videos, which put various scientists and science communicator’s words to music, deals with the history of our species – the fact we all descend from African ancestors and that all populations outside Africa are the result of migrations that started around 150 000 ago:

It’s a matter of continual disappointment and annoyance to me that most New Zealanders don’t know that the person most responsible for finding our place in the biological world and locating the base of our family tree in Africa was a kiwi. Allan Wilson was a graduate of Otago University who went to Berkeley to use the new technologies that were developed for medical genetics to answer some of the oldest questions in biology. By sequencing DNA and looking at the cross-reactivity of immune system proteins, Wilson and his students established that humans only separated from other apes about 6 million years ago (as opposed to conformable distance of 25 million years paleontologists had favoured) and coined the term “Mitochondrial Eve” for one of the ancestors all modern humans can trace their origin to. This ‘Eve’ lived 150 000 years ago in Africa, so, just as Alice Roberts says in the video, we are all children of Africa.

These findings absolutely changed the way we think of ourselves as a species, and New Zealanders should know a kiwi was behind them! Thankfully the Royal Society has just announced one of Wilson’s students, and a co-author on the most important papers, Rebbecca Cann is coming to New Zealand to talk about Wilson and his legacy. If you get a chance, I really encourage you to get along and hear her talk.

0 Responses to “Our greatest journey”

  • Wow. The Out of Africa hypothesis and Allan Wilson’s various contributions were large portions of one of my undergraduate anthropology courses. I had no idea he was a kiwi. To be fair, it was the course that I always arrived five minutes late for. It is likely I was out of the room when the NZ connection was mentioned.

    In any case, thanks for enlightening me, David.

  • Just to be contentious, though – given that we’re all children of Africa, does it matter that he was a Kiwi? /ducks

  • Also, I take it you’ve seen the current Sciblogs videopost? 🙂

  • Chris,

    Ha, yor lecturers obviously got the parochial bit of the story out of the way first then got on with the science 🙂


    I hadn’t seen that, doubled up now but I was mainly using the video an excuse to talk about the lectures (and get in a dig about auto-tune). I know you are joking in the other comment, but I *think* it’s OK to acknowledge that humanity forms one tight-knit group while being just a little proud of some of the local members of that group 😉

  • I’ve only recently realised that the arrival of Maori in NZ ~1000 years ago is basically the tail end of the world-wide human migration out of Africa. It took 149,000 years to get everywhere inhabitable!

  • @ShadowMind – Hey, that’s true, I never thought of it like that.

    I moved from the place humanity originated to the last place to be settled by the migration out of Africa.

    Pretty. Awesome.