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First Soldier of the Gene Wars Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Meredith F. Small

A pioneer of genetic archaeology maps the history of human migration.

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Luca Cavalli-Sforza has recently decided to spend half the year in his urban house in Milan and the other half on the sprawling campus of California's Stanford University. The jet-setting lifestyle is nothing new to the 83-year-old anthropological geneticist; he used to alternate months in each place, flying back and forth between continents as if it were a drive across town.

Cavalli-Sforza's migrations also exemplify the kind of movement that has been the main focus of his research for more than five decades. He has used the genetics of modern people to trace the path of our grand diaspora out of Africa about 200,000 years ago into every corner of the globe. On this journey into wildly different environments, our kind didn't speciate, but we did end up forming groups or populations that are distinct in skin color, body size, blood groups, and tendency toward certain diseases. And in those differences, Cavalli-Sforza reads our history.

Photo by Jason Groh

His interest in human variation has also gotten him into deep trouble. He's a notorious figure among anthropologists because he has courted public attention and controversy. He has consistently maintained that there are no such things as biological races, but at the same time has used racial categories to parse human types over evolutionary history. His career has been devoted to understanding the historical movements of indigenous groups, but some of the very people he studies have labeled him a racist and a "biopirate."

But all the controversy and name calling in the world doesn't seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for the story of human history one little bit.

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University. The author of several books, she is also a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of genetics
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