Book Review: Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas


Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas by Jennifer Raff

Jennifer Raff’s Origin hit the New York Times best seller list within a month of its publication in February of this year. It reached as high as number 11 on the Amazon nonfiction bestseller list that same month before the online seller reportedly ran out of stock. For a science book aimed at  a general audience those are both big accomplishments.

Much of the explanation for that has to do with Raff herself. Her writing is easy to read. Even when she takes us along to peer over her shoulder as she extracts DNA from an ancient tooth, she somehow makes the science, and the process, sound fascinating.  

The rest of the explanation has to do with the topic Raff writes about. If you are like many of us living in North (and I imagine South) America, you’ve probably wondered how long ago it really was that humanity came to the Americas. 

Yes, There are ancient mounds in the US, and Mayan, Incan and Olmec ruins in Central and South America. But compared to Europe or Africa there is a sparsity of archeological finds the farther you go back in time. 

There is no North American equivalent, for example, for the age and aesthetic quality of the cave paintings at Lascaux. Nor has there been any direct evidence that other human species such as the Neanderthal or the Denisovans ever made it to the Americas.

We’ve all heard the story that the Americas were peopled via the Bering Land Bridge (aka "Beringia") - a route across the top of the world between present day Alaska and Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula. That’s where Raff starts off her book. She details the archeological evidence for and against it, and delves into some of the other theories that compete with it (a route by sea rather than land, primarily).

From there Raff takes us through some of the history of the archeological pursuit for the answer to the question of the peopling of the Americas. That includes a good bit of what today would be considered unethical behavior in early archeological digs (including by Thomas Jefferson).

But Raff’s particular interest is genetics. She is a geneticist and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, and she has been active in researching Indigineous DNA. What really fascinated me about her account of the genetic research is the work that has been done to compare the evolution of human and dog DNA in the Americas. It's remarkable to see the parallels there are between the two. It would seem the first peoples brought their dogs along with them.

I will admit that some of Raff’s genetic discussion does become a bit complicated, especially when she breaks out the mitochondrial haplogroups. (If you have any experience with DNA testing by companies like Ancestry, you may have heard the term before. It is basically a tool that geneticists use to trace your ancestry through your mother’s line, and can show where your family likely “came from”,  when compared against other DNA samples. In other words it can put your family’s history on a map.)

But it’s through genetics that there is some certainty that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are descended through a family line that goes back to Siberia. Which brings us back to the Land Bridge, or Sea Route (the timing derived from the genetics research may or may align with the opening of the land bridge at the end of the last ice age).

But there are hints, both genetic and archaeological, that the arrival by way of Beringia may not be the complete answer. Raff is right to point out that what she tells us in this book is the current understanding, and that the full answer to the question of the peopling of the Americas is still waiting on more discoveries.

RATING: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. 

Borrow or Purchase Origin here:

πŸ“™  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

πŸ“˜ Buy this book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Powell’s | AbeBooks* | ThriftBooks 

πŸ“— Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

πŸ“š Visit my shop to see all my reviewed books. 

Title: Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas

Author: Jennifer Raff

Publisher: Twelve Books (Hachette Book Group)

Publish Date: February 8, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781538749715

Publisher’s List Price: $30 Hardcover (as of 11/2022)