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

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  1,130 ratings  ·  213 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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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
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.
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!
Aug 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010s, dewey500s, des, anthro
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
Gavin Leech
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Apr 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is primarily a book about cutting-edge advances in ancient DNA, but there are also some detours into highly controversial current-day population genetics and behavioral genetics issues.

The ancient DNA stuff is fascinating, and made even cooler by the fact that Reich and his lab at Harvard are at the forefront of all the big discoveries. This isn't one of those pop science books where a journalist summarizes research for you. Reich gives a first-person view of the scientific process, and it'
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
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
David Reich leads the DNA laboratory at Harvard University which has been at the forefront of the recent field of population genetics, pioneering many DNA extraction and mathematical analysis techniques to search for clues into the ancestry of various human populations worldwide. In the early days of gene sequencing, mitochondrial DNA and y-chromosomes were respectively analyzed to trace maternal and paternal lineages of people, but recent advances have allowed analysis of the whole genome, whic ...more
Oct 11, 2018 rated it did not like it
Bad biology, worse social science.

See profession review here:
Oct 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Reich is a geneticist who is one of the pioneers of ancient DNA analysis. This books sums up what have been found. Basically humans move around a lot. We moved, settled down and became indigenous, and then new groups moved and mixed with the static group. This happened many times to make us. This book was so good that I listened to it and then read it to fully understand the whole thing.

1. Ancient DNA samples provide hitherto-unavailable glimpse into the origins of people. Population mixing is
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
Katie Stein
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
I have been interested the science at the intersection of linguistics and ancient hominid genomics for a while, but the primary journal articles that I've read on the topic have been a challenge for me, at least partially due to my lack of context for ancient human evolution. This book has been a perfect entry to that discipline, discussing all of the key findings in ancient genomics over the last 10-15 years since the onset of high-throughput genome wide DNA analysis. The key point he is making ...more
Jun 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Who We Are and How We Got Here is mostly about what DNA extracted from ancient skeletons can tell us about migration patterns from the distant past. A couple quick takeaways.

.This is not my field, and the book is not exactly written for a popular audience, which isn't to say it's unreadable. But one wonders how much more engaging it might have been if Malcolm Gladwell had written it.

.Millions of years is geologic time, right? Well, it's very hard to think about that amount of time, and I don't t
Peter A
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Image you feel asleep in 1998 and awoke 20 years later in 2018. Besides the changed political landscapes, you discover how information technology has transformed our lives, from how we interact with others via social media, to how we purchase goods via the internet, and how we created new businesses in a “sharing-economy.” And the changes are continuing to impact how we work, in fact what we will be doing in the future.

Information technology is not alone in technological changes that are shaping
Vipin Sharma
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't know what I feel about this book just yet

One early morning, first thing I read was an article in 'The Economist' about how a new research had proved the validity of Aryan Invasion Theory. Incidentally, this has been a topic which has interested me for quite a while. So, I read the complete article, where in the name of the author of the book was mentioned. I searched his name and found that he had written this book which had been released just recently. So naturally, I opened the link fo
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“There was never a single trunk population in the human past. It has been mixtures all the way down.” 2 likes
“So how much Neanderthal ancestry do people outside of Africa carry today? We found that non-African genomes today are around 1.5 to 2.1 percent Neanderthal in origin,24 with the higher numbers in East Asians and the lower numbers in Europeans, despite the fact that Europe was the homeland of the Neanderthals.25 We now know that at least part of the explanation is dilution. Ancient DNA from Europeans who lived before nine thousand years ago shows that pre-farming Europeans had just as much Neanderthal ancestry as East Asians do today.26 The reduction in Neanderthal ancestry in present-day Europeans is due to the fact that they harbor some of their ancestry from a group of people who separated from all other non-Africans prior to the mixture with Neanderthals (the story of this early-splitting group revealed by ancient DNA is told in part II of this book). The spread of farmers with this inheritance diluted the Neanderthal ancestry in Europe, but not in East Asia.” 1 likes
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