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The History of Human Migration

September 29, 2010
by James Sullivan
Ninety thousand years ago early humans first ventured out of Africa. Today, humans inhabit virtually every corner of the world. Take a look at the journey humanity has taken across continents through the ages, and connect with interactive resources for exploring the history of human migration.

Studying Migration

Where did the first Homo sapiens live? How did humans colonize distant Pacific islands? When did people first arrive in North America? Questions such as these have been central to the modern discipline of anthropology. The answers paint a fascinating picture of the movements of human populations, which have been shaped in many cases by extreme climate events. 

Scientific consensus puts the earliest known ancestors of modern humans in East Africa, roughly 200,000 years ago. The first wave of humans to migrate out of Africa about 85,000 years ago followed the coasts through the Middle East, into Southern Asia via Sri Lanka, and eventually around Indonesia and into Australia. A subsequent wave of migration between 40,000 and 12,000 years ago brought humans northward into Europe. The frozen north limited human expansion in Europe, but also created a land bridge connecting Asia with North America. Ancestors of the Native Americans took this route, called the Bering land bridge, about 25,000 years ago.

Scientists use a number of factors to rehash early human migration patterns, including archaeological evidence of human presence, such as tools and fossils, and more recently mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). NOVA Online explains how mtDNA is inherited and how it is used by scientists in research.

Visualizing Migration

Though reading about human migration is illuminating, perhaps the most effective way to learn is by clicking through some of the Web’s multimedia timelines.

National Geographic’s Genographic Project is an ongoing effort “seeking to chart new knowledge about the migratory history of the human species by using sophisticated laboratory and computer analysis of DNA contributed by hundreds of thousands of people from around the world.” Among the interesting features on the project’s homepage is the “Atlas of the Human Journey.” This interactive timeline shows the movement of different groups across the globe, supplemented in each era by video content.

The Bradshaw Foundation’s “Journey of Mankind” walks visitors through the history of migration, centering on how it was affected by changes in the global climate. The feature is based on the work of noted Oxford University-based DNA archaeologist Stephen Oppenheimer.

Our Seafaring Ancestors

One great mystery of human migration was how our “primitive” ancestors reached isolated islands hundreds of miles into the ocean, without the benefit of modern navigational equipment and vessels. Norwegian archaeologist and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl’s theories and bold experiments into the area of Polynesian anthropology contributed significantly to our understanding of transoceanic migration.

While conducting research on Fatu-Hiva in the Marquesas, Heyerdahl concluded that Polynesia had been originally settled by seafarers from Peru and Easter Island.

On April 27, 1947, Heyerdahl set sail from Peru for Polynesia in a small balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki, to collect evidence for his theories. The raft carried Heyerdahl and his crew of five on a 101-day journey across the Pacific Ocean. The raft landed on an island in the Tuamotu Archipelago after covering 5,000 miles. Heyerdahl had done exactly what he set out to do—to demonstrate that ancient people from South America could have traveled to Polynesia on primitive crafts. Heyerdahl’s book about the Kon-Tiki expedition sold 60 million copies, and the 1950 movie made on the journey won an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Reference: Anthropology

If you have an extracurricular interest in anthropology, or would like to explore the field for possible future study, visit findingDulcinea’s Anthropology Web Guide. It offers an introduction to anthropology as a field of study, links to anthropology journals and research, and presents information about anthropology graduate programs and careers.

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