Friday, July 10, 2020

Short history of the world keeps getting longer

Only about a decade ago, I wrote a short history of the world. For young readers, actually, but conceiving that short overview of fifty or a hundred thousand years of human history was a significant (and engrossing) intellectual project. I continue to take an interest -- often in the form of thinking what I would add and revise in a new edition. 

Because it is striking how much has changed in a decade, particularly in early human history and particularly through historical DNA. When I was working on that project, there was not much belief that Neanderthal DNA persisted in modern humans, for instance. The existence of the Denisovans was entirely unsuspected.  A thousand aspects of the movement and admixtures of populations across the globe were about to be revised.

I did write in that book that the exploration and settlement of the islands of the Pacific Ocean by the people who became the Polynesians was one of the remarkable feats of human expansion. But at the time the idea that the Polynesians had made contact with South American peoples was not a strongly supported hypothesis.

Now here's the DNA evidence: what seem to be a clear genetic trace of Colombian peoples in the bloodlines of Marquesans and Easter Islanders, evidence of contact between the islanders and the South Americans around 1150 AD to 1230 AD.

I could not help thinking: where else and how much farther might Polynesian seafarers have reached, given more time?

But early in the 1600s, just a few hundred years after the Polynesians' first tentative contacts with the Americas, European fleets burst into the Pacific. Soon disease and conquest curtailed indigenous Pacific islanders' exploration and settlement, even within their own territories. 
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