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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Symposium at Museum of Natural History Traces Human Origins

It amazes me, the ways in which modern archaeologists, geneticists and linguists can tease out clues about human origins. That’s why, when I read about the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s conference on the dispersal of early humans, I dropped almost everything to attend the two-day conference.

While attendees witnessed considerable debate in far-reaching findings, the 18 international scientists agreed on one major point. Humans throughout time have excelled at migrating and sex.

Museum of Natural History President and CEO Luke Swetland introduced the conference, largely organized by former trustee Janet Sands and director emeritus Dr. Karl Hutterer. The goal, according to Swetland, was, “Exploring our human wanderings: How did our journey change us as we encountered new environments? What can this tell us about our current journey?”

To these points, Australian geoarchaeologist Dr. Tim Denham described the adaptive strategies that have allowed people to cross barriers: environmental exploitation, a broad spectrum of plant and animal exploitations, maritime colonization, and mobility. Along the way, complex patterns of diversity developed, resulting in 7,800 languages, 240 language families and 190 isolates (languages that don’t seem related to others), according to Netherlands psycholinguist Dr. Dan Dediu.

At least two major waves of modern humans left Africa. Each time they encountered archaic species of hominids from previous dispersals. They interacted at a genetic level (see first paragraph), leaving markers in their genes. Consequently, all non-African modern humans are 1.3 percent to 2 percent Neanderthal. German anthropologist Dr. Mark Stoneking discussed other groups with traces of pre-humans, like 4 to 6 percent Denisovan heritage in New Guineans.

The earlier of the two waves made their way to Australia, represented genetically in modern-day Aborigines. By genetic analysis, Texas anthropologist Dr. Ted Goebel traced another wave that colonized Beringia, the region around the Bering Straight, as early as 35,000 years ago.

Then the puzzle. There’s a gap in the record: an icy period between 16,000 and 34,000 years where migrants seem to have holed up in Beringia. Perhaps they were awaiting visas? After that mysterious bottleneck, some groups sped south down the Americas, others may have returned west through Asia, and a contingent likely proceeded north and east through the Arctic to Greenland.

Along the way, there was a decrease in genetic diversity corresponding with the distance from Africa. Interestingly, Berkeley linguist Dr. Johanna Nichols — the only female presenter — pointed to increased language diversity with migration: Half the world’s families of languages come from the Americas, which represent much less than half the land.

Museum curator of anthropology Dr. John Johnson delivered the symposium’s capstone address. Johnson has built his career exploring local Chumash history and paleoindian coastal migration patterns. Under his guidance, teams have excavated the Santa Rosa Island location of Arlington Man, the only human skeletal remains discovered to date that are at least as old as 13,000 years.

Making the ancient relevant to youngsters, Johnson worked with the museum’s Quasars to Sea Stars teens to interpret DNA data and create an interpretive poster for the conference. The four-year high school program helps students perform immersive-based science. By museum statistics, it has boosted 90 percent of its graduates to college, two-third of whom have chosen majors in science, math or engineering.

If we’re lucky, one of these young Santa Barbara scientists will be able to solve the riddle of the Beringian gap years.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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