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Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,631 ratings  ·  292 reviews
A groundbreaking book about how technological advances in genomics and the extraction of ancient DNA have profoundly changed our understanding of human prehistory while resolving many long-standing controversies.

Massive technological innovations now allow scientists to extract and analyze ancient DNA as never before, and it has become clear--in part from David Reich's own
Hardcover, 335 pages
Published March 27th 2018 by Pantheon Books
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4.19  · 
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 ·  1,631 ratings  ·  292 reviews

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Lois Bujold
Sep 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone

This was the book that I wanted the last book I read on the topic to be. Concentrates on the science, lucidly written, although probably best not read when one is too fatigued or sleepy. Its explanations seem as simple as possible but no simpler, which I appreciate. This is a round-up of the most recent (as of about the end of 2017) science of ancient DNA by one of the scientists working on the subject. It's such a fast-moving field right now (faster than print publishing, to be sure) even a yea
We geneticists may be the barbarians coming late to the study of the human past, but it is always a bad idea to ignore barbarians. We have access to a type of data that no one has had before, and we are wielding these data to address previously unapproachable questions about who ancient peoples were.
. This book has many very, very good qualities. It is, without doubt, the best modern summary of ancient genome research and how it is transforming our understanding of the past available. However, i
Clif Hostetler
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book offers readers a description about the human past that has been made possible by recent technological advances in genome research. By comparing whole genomes' worth of DNA from ancient humans of various degrees of antiquity together with the data analysis power of modern computers, a picture of ancient human history has emerged that is filled with multiple migrations by varied branches of the human ancestral family.

The picture that is emerging consists of so many past migrations and m
Feb 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology
Reich, a Harvard genetics professor, is a leading scientist investigating ancient DNA. He brings us up to date on the significant progress that has been made in the extraction and analysis of DNA from ancient bones. These recent studies change what we know about the movements of prehistoric peoples and our relationships to archaic humans and each other. In 2010 the genomes of only five ancient people had been published. By 2017 over 700 ancient individual genomes had been published with Reich’s ...more
Katia N
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
‘The speed at which the ancient DNA revolution is moving is exhilarating. The technology is evolving so quickly that many papers being published right now use methods that will be obsolete within a few years.’

Without having any special knowledge of genomics, anthropology or archeology, I am not well placed to review this book. Therefore, what follows is just my impressions and main take from it. Admirably, Reich’s book is not Eurocentric, it covers all the regions to some extent. But mine notes
Jul 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Such fascinating science and research on ancient DNA. I also really loved all the research about the Iranian Nomad populations that are basically the tribe that took over Europe because those are my people (kind of because there was a lot of mixing). It was also stunning to see how inequality and male domination affected genetics. Basically a few really powerful men who spread their DNA far and wide. Women obviously can't have too many children, but also history seems to be just conquering armie ...more
Apr 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This was a fantastic condensation of modern research on genomics and it's effect on our understanding of anthropology and history. Really, what is it with biologists that they are able to write these books understandable to a relatively lay audience without hiding entire detail about how the scientists go about doing their research and draw conclusions:

We scientists are conditioned by the system of research funding to justify what we do in terms of practical application to health or technology.
|| Who We Are And How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich ||

Reich does an admirable job laying out the field of genomics and its implications on our understanding of human origins, migration patterns, and related fields of linguistics, and medicine.

The book pulls largely from Reich's own research work and samples at his Harvard laboratory. He navigates the ethics of genetic research with special sensitivity to how this research has been abused and misuse
Mar 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Due to Goodreads limits, this review is cropped. The full review can be found at

This review will likely be updated as I mull over or re-read the book.

[…] when we discover biological differences governing behavior, they may not be working in the way we naively assume. — David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Reich has done a tremendous job condensing the work of many people and disparate areas of research into a compelling story that is po

Jan 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
David Reich comes off as a sincere guy who loves his work: a puzzle master of human ancestry who is among the first with previously missing pieces. The book explains the methods and the subtle art of obtaining and analyzing ancient DNA using the whole genome. This sequencing illuminates far more than mitochondrial DNA or Y-chromosome research could. If you’re still with me you’ll love this book!
Steve Van Slyke
Apr 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Paleoanthropology enthusiasts
Recommended to Steve by: National Geographic article
Having read earlier books on this topic by Svante Paabo, Spencer Wells and others I was anxious to read something current. I wasn't disappointed. This, as others have said, is an excellent summary of the state of genetic research using ancient DNA to determine how we all got to where we are today. The only downside is that the rate of advancement in the field--as the author states--is so high at the moment that unless you read this within two to three years of publication it may well be out of d ...more
Aug 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: des, 2010s, anthro, dewey500s
A perception changing book ... but it contained too much information for my attention capacity. Less than 300 pages of text, but seemed longer. Did a lot of skimming. If I had purchased it, rather than borrowing, it would be read it segments with underlining and marginal comments, and would likely be re-visited multiple times ... amazing science.

Tagged it Dewey 500s, for applied science. Library of Congress catalogs it 572 for human genetics.

"Contents ...
Part I - The Deep History of Our Species
Jun 17, 2018 rated it liked it
Incredibly detailed and fresh, but also repetitive and indiscriminate. Had to think quite hard looking at some of the many diagrams showing e.g. hundreds of thousands of years of almost-noise recombination.

Archeology has been transformed in the last decade, by the ancient DNA hunt. Reich allows us something precious, to see large and profound errors corrected, nearly as they are first discovered. But it just isn't that readable and the forest of details obscures even the giant new facts (Denisov
Peter Mcloughlin
Traces the general history of humanity from its origins in Africa and the subsequent lineages that went to Europe, South Asia, East Asia, Australasia, The Americas and subsequent African lineages as they changed in the genetic record up to the present. Also covers the detective story behind the discoveries in DNA research which has given us a way more complete history than the archeological record. Tells the varied stories of humanity.
Peter Tillman
Jul 22, 2018 marked it as to-read
Go-to review is Biafra Ahananou's,
"This book, even with its flaws, is worth reading for the great overview it gives into the emerging ancient DNA field that could have profound impacts on culture, politics, and science."
Willy C
Willy Chertman

"Who We Are and How We Got Here" is great book with some flaws. As a one-stop guide for catching up with the ancient DNA revolution, it is unequaled. It is also a refreshingly honest look into the life of a practicing prominent scientist in the age of large research labs and giant research consortiums.

Coming along for the ride are some lucid explanations of many of the statistical tests used in ancestry mapping, like the Four Populations Test, and methods used to estimat
Jan 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: luis
I could have finished this book in 2018, but as I was approaching the end, I started to read it in smaller chunks, to make it last…

What a great read! This book is basically a summary of the state of the art in terms of genetic research using ancient DNA (i.e. DNA from skeletal remains up to hundreds of thousands years old) and the use of data taken from the whole genome at once, instead of just small stretches of it, as done before, made possible technological advances that allowed the costs of
Riju Ganguly
This book may well go down as one of the classics of our times. Unfortunately, for me the book was considerably disappointing, despite the wealth of information and concepts that it describes. Reason behind that feeling had been summed up by the author himself at the end of the book: the study of ancient DNA, and thus this book, had been almost entirely Eurocentric.
Also, the book turned out to be rather unnecessarily ruminating over philosophical aspects of various findings, while the same groun
Xenophon Hendrix
Apr 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author, David Reich, is a eminent population geneticist whose work is shedding light on questions of archeology and history. This book is primarily about the origins and movements of the ancestors of persons today. When it sticks to that topic, the book is excellent, except for the occasional awkward sentence.

Unfortunately, the author finds it necessary to make disparaging, and in my opinion misleading, remarks about Nicholas Wade, Henry Harpending, and James Watson. He also repeatedly attac
Oct 11, 2018 rated it did not like it
Bad biology, worse social science.

See my professional review here:
Nov 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: black
Not so long ago, Mayan script could not be read. It was not really until the 1970's that enough was understood to learn many of the most significant facts about the Mayan history, pre-European contact. Prior to that time, there were prominent researchers who thought that the ancient Mayan civilization was a peaceful one. Some even thought that the apparent ruined cities were actually just religious centers, which the Mayans would go to only occasionally, for ceremonies. Once the Mayan script was ...more
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
The excitement in reading Who We Are and How We Got Here is in witnessing the birth of a new science. David Reich warns the reader in the introduction that studies of ancient DNA are providing new information at such a rapid pace that some of the book’s fascinating findings might already, at publication, be eclipsed by new findings. Reich is not simply reporting on a scientific movement; he is a distinguished geneticist who studies ancient DNA.

Efforts to reconstruct the long ago have generally f
Aaron Arnold
Aug 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is absolutely the book to read if you're interested in genetic history, either your own or humanity's. Reich zooms out tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago, far past most Big History books, discussing how the latest research on recent discoveries of ancient DNA has begun to make sense of the vast movements of peoples in the dim unremembered mists of time from before we have written records. The rapid pace of technological advancement in genetics research, to the point where we can re ...more
May 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
4.5 in substance, 3 in actual writing clarity.

This books gives an overview of the new methods of using “ancient DNA” to learn about human history. There are really 3 parts to it - (1) an overview of the new methods (which are very new); (2) a revised history of the ancestry of various regions using these methods (North America, East Asia, Africa, etc.); and (3) the implications of this new research/knowledge on modern policy debates.

So the second part is the longest and most interesting. The ta
Fascinating and thought provoking, but very difficult reading, made more so by the author’s tendency to write paragraph-long sentences. A little editing would have made it even more impactful.
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I accidentally delivered the e-galley of this book to the wrong device and forgot about it for a year--too bad, because it was fascinating. It certainly deserves my "five stars for having gotten me to look at something familiar in a new way."

Previously I had a vague sense that humans evolved in Africa, then migrated in stages to other parts of the world and proceeded to hang out there for about 40,000 years during which nothing much happened, until for some reason ancient civilizations started t
Apr 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
We have all heard of the fad for DNA ancestry testing. Being a paranoid, I haven’t joined the crowd, because all testing companies are happy to hand over the results to the police, and what if I need to keep quiet some heinous crime I commit where I leave my DNA behind? Not to mention, what those tests claim to reveal about you is limited, in many cases, by inadequate comparison data, which the companies fill in with lies. But that lack of comparison data is swiftly being remedied, both in the p ...more
This. Was. Excruciating. I finished this by relying on sheer stubbornness. The topic was of interest and I hoped (unreasonably, it seems) that it would improve as I read. It did not. I fell asleep repeatedly trying to read it. I was thrilled to finish. Why?

This is a textbook-like survey of the author’s work using whole DNA as opposed to Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA to analyze ancient bones in an effort to uncover the origin of modern humans. The process is incredibly technical and is really a mat
Nico Van Straalen
In a waterfall-type of style David Reich relates the many discoveries coming from ancient DNA research over the past few years. It is an amazing story, illustrated by many new facts from his own laboratory at Harvard, everything brand-new and published only recently. His book is organized more or less geographically as he discusses the great mixing zones in Europe, South Asia, East Asia, Africa and the Americas. I thought the colonization of Australia could have gotten a bit more attention, in t ...more
40th book for 2018.

A wonderful book detailing the very latest research into human origins brought to light by the study of full genomes of ancient DNA. Reich was involved in the group in Leipzig that first decoded the full genome of Neanderthals, and since setup a lab in the US that specializes in the automated factory like decoding of genomes of ancient people's across the World.

Here is an insider's account of the a field that is overturning much of what we know about human origins.

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Science and Inquiry: Who We Are 4 33 Apr 29, 2018 08:27PM  

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“There was never a single trunk population in the human past. It has been mixtures all the way down.” 3 likes
“The genome revolution has shown that we are not living in particularly special times when viewed from the perspective of the great sweep of the human past. Mixtures of highly divergent groups have happened time and again, homogenizing populations just as divergent from one another as Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans.” 2 likes
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