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Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins
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Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  965 ratings  ·  64 reviews
In a journey across four continents, acclaimed science writer Steve Olson traces the origins of modern humans and the migrations of our ancestors throughout the world over the past 150,000 years. Like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, Mapping Human History is a groundbreaking synthesis of science and history. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including the latest ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published April 1st 2003 by Mariner Books (first published May 15th 2002)
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Feb 22, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
It’s the history of all of us. . . and we’re more alike than most people know.

Mitochondrial Eve (our common female ancestor) lived fewer than 200,000 years ago and thus shows the recency of our common ancestry. “Some people might like to believe that genetic mixing of people from different groups is rare—and that their ancestors certainly didn’t mix with hoi polloi. But groups have many ways of mixing.”

By comparing the DNA sequences of people all over the world, geneticists have found 85% of
Mid 3. Olson traces the evolution of mankind across four continents, and in doing so begs the question of whether racial distinctions are nothing more than historical accidents. According to his account everyone alive today can trace their biological roots to a small group of anatomically modern humans inhabiting the grasslands of Eastern Africa some 100,000 years ago. The four most momentous events in the prehistory of human evolution all probably occurred within 500 miles of the equator. ...more
Timothy Riley
Apr 02, 2016 rated it liked it
This was a quick read relative to the subject matter, informative but not too technical. The basic premise is that the human species is incredibly alike regardless of our visual differences. Race is nothing but a human construct designed to neatly put groups in categories but doesn't reflect DNA similiarities. The most interesting part of this book concerns the migrations out of Africa, about how there were several attempts and then maybe returns to Africa and the bottleneck that modern Egpyt ...more
Sally Hegedus
In this wonderful book, Olson explores the origin of Homo sapiens and our eventual migrations to populate the globe. The bulk of the book focuses on the latest genetic research using DNA analysis to discover just where we all come from. How do humans genetically differ from one another, and more importantly, what does research tell us we all of us have in common? Olson argues strongly, and backs it up with science, that the human race is one; that we are all the product on interbreeding and the ...more
Sep 10, 2013 rated it liked it
The scientific part of this book is fascinating reading. Olson gives a great account of how mankind evolved in Africa and spread to the rest of the world, along with some interesting case studies such as that of the Lemba people in Zimbabwe and South Africa who - based on genetic evidence - have Jewish ancestors. Also includes a good explanation of why we all have ancestors from all corners of the world. For me, the book is marred by a certain amount of preachiness, but if one can abstract from ...more
Camille Baird
Jan 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I found this book to be very interesting and while I don't agree with some of the evolutionary thoughts (there has never been any crossover evolution, so in that aspect I find evolution theory to be unbelievable in general) but I did find most of the content to be interesting and educational.
Prasan Kaikini
Jul 04, 2017 rated it liked it
With a grandiose title such as this, I was expecting a lot more from this book. The book is very light on the science of genetics and how it helps in tracing human history and migration. he author does describe how mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome are used in tracing genetic ancestry, but it lacks the depth I was expecting. Since genetics is probabilistic and not deterministic the author cautions against using genetics as a basis for inheritance or anti-discrimination laws. The main thesis ...more
Jul 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: summer-2017
As an bio-anthro major, I thought it was a great overview of human genetic history. I very much liked the way it was set up by region, starting with Africa and working its way out, to model the migration of modern humans around the globe. I also liked that Olson made a point to pull research from geneticists that not only were interested in the genetics of certain parts of the world, but were also from the same region they study. The book is a little outdated though, as it mentions several times ...more
Richard Milter
Jun 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This was very interesting, though new information has made it kind of dated.
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Pretty good but showing it's age. This field is developing fast.
Dec 18, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: gave-up-on
I purchased Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins thinking I'd found an in-depth discussion of the genetic aspect of the origin and spread of Homo. After all, it was a National Book Award Finalist, and a Discover Best Science Book of the Year. Ordinarily such accolades mean little to me, but in the case of a non-specialist who, I hoped, would have a new take on the issue, I appreciated the professional nod.

I'm sure it's no surprise from my introduction to say that I was
Juanita Rice
Jan 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, science
I am glad to have read this book. I had a general idea of the information about genetic tracking of human beings to common ancestry, about possible interbreeding with other primate/human-types like Neandertals [sic:], and of course the scientific evidence debunking ideas of race, of relative racial "inborn" differences, of "difference" itself perhaps. It was good to read more deeply in these topics, and Olson does a credible job of making such complicated science intelligible to a ...more
Victor Sonkin
Olson provides one of the most accessible accounts of population genetics, the fascinating field pioneered in the trenches of WWI and later developed into a full-blown science through the efforts of L.L.Cavalli-Sforza and many others. The book is divided into sections corresponding to parts of the world, though this is only a very sketchy division (since the human race is intrinsically interconnected, one can't really speak of Africa without touching upon the rest of the world).

Olson is not a
Cougar Dan Misogynistic Empire
This book was full of interesting and pertinent information and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But if I had to pick a title for it, I would have called it The Case Against Racism. While it does talk a little bit about the origin, distribution, and diversification of the human species over the course of the past 200,000 years, that's not what Olson seems to be focused on. In the book, he goes into great detail discussing the history of bigotry on the basis of race, and then uses science to ...more
Chris Demer
Steve Olson explains in this clearly written book how the Human Genome Project has given scientists new information in determining the history of our species, and some of those closely related. He discusses how genetic information (especially that provided by mitochondrial DNA and the DNA of the X chromosome) has helped us to understand where humans originated (Africa) and how they migrated out of that continent to populate the earth.
The overriding theme is how very similar we are to all other
Feb 27, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: evolution, science
Interesting, sweeping account of the history of human population movements based on where genetics was in 2002. Some fascinating info about the Jews, Bushmen, Mitochondrial Eve, the Neandertals, and the Native Americans. After each chapter, however, I was left wanting more. Too much commentary and speculation mixed in with hard genetic evidence. While I appreciated Olson's insight that race is a biologically indefensible construct, he seemed, by the end of the book, to be gathering as many ...more
Oct 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction-read
Olson's overview of genetic research on the migrations of modern humans out of Africa and into every inhabited land is very useful. He includes good notes for those wishing to read the primary sources. Although the material is fascinating, the style is somewhat unexciting. The book would benefit from a section on the spread of those hominids who left Africa in earlier migrations, since the work refers to the encounters between modern humans and pre-modern humans already established in ...more
Sean Mahdi
Mapping Human History attempts to answer the big questions about how modern humans evolved. In doing so, it traces the fascinating story of modern humans' journey out of Africa 100,000 years ago and their subsequent migration around the world.

One of the points of tension in the book is that while genetics demonstrates our fundamental similarities as human beings and the meaninglessness of racial distinctions, tiny genetic differences are enough to trace groups of people back into the distant
Mark Heishman
Mar 30, 2012 rated it liked it
This book rejects most of what I was taught in school and Sunday school and Church. It also challanges as fiction much of what I have spent my adult life reading about. It makes such statements as we are all of black ancestory roots, man did not have its beginning in the middle east, we can all probably be linked to the same famous figures in history such as Julius Caesar and Attila the Hun, there is no true blood Jewish nation existing today. We all can be linked by blood to Jewish ancestory, ...more
Aug 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Some things about genetics I assumed were true turns out are false.
1. The mathematical "proof" that biological numbers of an individuals ancestors converges to a common "eve".
2. Ethnic groups who claim genetic "purity" such as the "Basque,Lemba, assorted Jews, " do in fact share the same DNA as their geographic neighbors.
3. It is impossible to determine whether or not someone is pure "Hawaiian" because there is no Hawaiian set of genes, or an Asian set of genes, or a European set of genes etc.
May 29, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: those interested in geography, physical/cultural anthropology, diaspora, and human diversity
I picked up this book without prior knowledge of the genetic human origins theory, and soon I was sucked into a fascinating ride to prehistoric times when early forms of homo sapiens first emerged in East Africa. I'd suggest anyone pondering this book not to be turned off by the word "Genes" in the title - it's true that genetics play a central role in this book, but it is reader-friendly enough to suit even non-science aficionados and young readers. The writing is well-balanced with evidence ...more
Aug 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Human genetics and our development into modern humans and our relationship to each other is one of my particular areas of interest, and this is an excellent book for a layman who knows little about the subject. What's so compelling about it to me is that it makes the same arguments as many other books (we're really not that different after all) but does it with irrefutable evidence -- our own DNA. I've read this book twice already (as evidenced by all the underlining and margin notes on just ...more
Rachel Drew
Dec 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Genetics is an amateur passion of mine (not in a creepy white supremicist/measuring skulls kind of way, but in a "wow, look how we moved around and settled different parts of the globe" kind of way.) DNA and the concept of haplogroups allows us to see how we are all connected and originate from the same place and also how our ancestors parted ways and rejoined and parted and joined again throughout human history. Did you know there is no marker for race? And that, in fact, it really only exists ...more
Dec 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
A good read. The book comes to the (I think) reassuring conclusion that race has very little to do with genetics. All humans are so genetically similar that race is irrelevant at that level. The really cool and interesting parts are about how the various continents became populated. There are also several highly interesting descriptions of isolated populations like the Basque in France and the Samaritans in Palestine. It is particularly amusing (and ironic) that the humble Bushmen appear to have ...more
Adam Cherson
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
I rate this book a 4.2 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being best. For those new to the subject of ancestral genetics, this book will be world view changing experience, if not a life changing one. The revolution in genetic science is probably the greatest human accomplishment of our slice of historical time. This book explores only one aspect of this revolution: what genes can tell us about our own human history. While the science is only beginning to scratch the surface of knowledge, this is a ...more
Grant Staley
Aug 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have always held interest in this subject since seeing a PBS piece on human migration years ago. This book covers the subject in a very readable format that is narrative rather than scientific. An opinion piece it is not, however, as the bibliography runs for 45 pages. I especially liked the author's sub-text that in the end, despite outward appearances, all humans are much more similar (genetically) than we are different. The final chapter is about Hawaii's melting-pot culture that supersedes ...more
Nov 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
Having studied biology and anthropology in college, I have a decent amount of knowledge in this area. With that being said, I went into the book feeling a little apprehensive that I wouldn't learn much of anything and that it might be too basic for me. However, I was happy to find that it retold the information I already knew in a really interesting way, and wove in with some things that were new to me!
J. Ewbank
Apr 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: a-good-read, science
This book by Steve Olson is about DNA and where we human beings came from. For instance he says that all of the 6 billion people alive today have descended from a small group of anatomically modern humans who once lived in eastern Africa.
Historically wherever modern humans met and perhaps mixed with the earlier human beings the older human beings eventually disappeared.

Fascinating reading.

J. Robert Ewbank author "John Wesley, Natural Man, and the 'Isms'"
Apr 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Interesting book- the author's premise is that there should be no racism as there are truly no races. He avoids the controversial subject of religion except at one point notes that Christianity has reinforced racism in some ways. I think Olson's point is extremely important- there are no genetic differences between peoples, so we cannot prove intellectual differences based on skin color or other physical attributes. Variation occurs more within groups than between groups.
Cassandra Kay Silva
Sep 18, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
I was not entirely impressed with the authors writing style, however I can not think of any subject that better underlies our connectedness as humans than genetics. Understanding our genetic history has the uncanny ability to help us realize how pointless racism and segregation are. We are all truly connected, our history as humans is entertwined and recognizing our common origins should give humanity a deeper sense of the true meaning of family.
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Steve Olson is author of the book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, which Amazon has named one of the 20 best nonfiction books published in 2016 and which has been shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. He is also the author of Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and other books, and ...more