By: Miguel Vilar

Join us on this extraordinary voyage through time and genetics, where every strand of DNA is a thread in the tapestry of human history.

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three-part series about Globetrekker, ancient DNA, and human history. Read parts one and two here:

In late July, FamilyTreeDNA launched Globetrekker, one of its most ambitious projects to date, which aimed to map human history by analyzing the paternally-inherited Y chromosome. The Research team incorporated genetics, statistics, environmental and geological sciences, and anthropology to estimate and geographically-place thousands of ancient mutations and migration routes across the globe as accurately as possible. In doing so, they recreated more than 100,000 years of human migratory history.

Globetrekker Reveals The Stories of Our Ancestors

The story of human origins in Africa and the species’ subsequent and rapid spread from there to Asia, Australia, and Europe has been told and retold by archaeologists and anthropologists alike for decades. However, this over-simplified global spread hides the intricacies of human migration and our shared human history—a history of unparalleled success as a species.

Over the course of time, humans developed countless technologies, altered landscapes, and adapted naturally and artificially to survive and flourish in nearly all of the earth’s environments. We did this more rapidly and effectively than nearly all other species. During that process, however, we left breadcrumbs in the way of our DNA.

Today, we are able to categorize and map the DNA of more than six thousand ancient people and millions of living men. Through this analysis, we have revealed migration paths and inter-population interactions that were previously undetected through archaeology record keeping. Therein lies the power of Globetrekker, revealing the hidden or forgotten past.

Here are a few examples of how DNA helped retell human history.

Haplogroups K and P Trekked Through Southeast Asia

Archaeologists had previously postulated that humans moved due east to Southeast Asia soon upon leaving Africa. This directional migration is most evident from DNA.

The Y-chromosome lineages of not just Australians, East Asians, and Southeast Asians but also Central Asians, Native Americans, and Europeans alike share an ancestry in Southeast Asia. One of the most important branches of the Y-DNA Tree of Humankind, the tree that connects all humans through our strictly patrilineal-line of ancestry, is haplogroup K.

Haplogroup K first arose in southwestern Asia (the Middle East) some 45,000 years ago but quickly spread across India to Southeast Asia. This west-to-east, strictly tropical migration pattern is a continuation of the similar directional movement is seen across the Sahel and equatorial Africa in the oldest haplogroups (A and B). It is also similar to patterns seen in specific subgroups of haplogroups C, D, and F, which are of similar age to K.

A screenshot of haplogroup P-M45 in Globetrekker

We found that haplogroup K and its descendants moved far east because many of its most immediate descendants (M, N,O, P, and S) not only arose in Southeast Asia within a few millennia but are still found among indigenous people there today. This discovery suggests that the ancestral route for more than 50% of current male-lineages today, including those descending from haplogroup P some 20,000 years ago, like haplogroup R commonly found in Europe and haplogroup Q seen in Native Americans, came through Southeast Asia.

Our Pleistocene ancestors were truly globe trekkers.

Haplogroup R-L21 Emerged During Bronze Age Britain

Within R, there is a specific haplogroup known as R-L21 that demonstrates a strong link to the island of Great Britain. The oldest individuals that belong to haplogroup R-L21 have all been found in remains associated with the early Bronze Age Bell Beaker culture. The Bell Beaker culture itself first arose in Central Europe around 2,800 BCE but quickly spread to Great Britain around the time that R-L21 first arose. The only direct archaeogenetic evidence of R-L21 points to Britain, where the lineage remains high in frequency among people today and is much less common outside of that region.

A screenshot of haplogroup R-L21 in Globetrekker

The absence of R-L21 among ancient continental peoples may suggest the lineage first arose on the island. However, its association with the Bell Beaker materials and its rapid dispersal across Britain during the Bronze Age suggest that it likely arose just outside Britain and spread as newcomers and their advanced technologies reached the islands and replaced earlier settlers. The age, directionality, and association with the Bell Beaker remains suggest R-L21 played a key role in ancient British history.

Haplogroup E-PF2546 Spread From Carthage Through Northern Africa Looking For Victory

Fast-forwarding through history, we soon move into the Iron Age and the rise of some of the world’s greatest empires. One empire that reigned powerfully across the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, eventually falling at the hands of Rome, was the Carthaginians.

Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was home to generations of great leaders during the early years of the Iron Age, but none is as well-remembered as Hannibal, who led forces to victory from North Africa into Europe around 220 BCE. During the Punic Wars, Hannibal and tens of thousands of men, cavalry, and even war elephants crossed Iberia through Gaul (modern-day France), reaching and ransacking parts of the young Roman Empire.

A screenshot of haplogroup E-PF2546 in Globetrekker

Coincidentally, we see with Globetrekker evidence in the form of several unique branches of haplogroup E-PF2546 following that same path, presumably carried by Cathagianian men, spreading from Northern Africa through Iberia, Sicily, and Sardinia, at that exact moment in history. Some 2,250 years after Hanninal and his elephants crossed the Alps and reached Rome, we still see DNA breadcrumbs of that infamous migration across that region today.

Haplogroup C-FT13521 Sails To The Polynesian Triangle

In more recent global treks, ancient Polynesians, some of history’s most accomplished sea travelers, reached the most geographically-isolated islands across the vast Pacific Ocean. These islands, now recognized as the geographic corners of the Polynesian Triangle—Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Easter Island—were once reached by a courageous group of individuals.

A screenshot of haplogroup C-FT13521 in Globetrekker

Among them were men who likely carried ancestral Y-DNA haplogroup C-FT13521 lineages. These treks took place in just the last 800 years and can be seen recreated in Globetrekkers’ C-FT13521 migration map. Some of these intrepid voyages would have taken weeks across the empty oceans and are arguably among humankind’s greatest feats.

Globetrekker Continues to Add Migrations

These are just a few examples of how, by carefully analyzing ancient and modern DNA, we can recreate historical events and even discover new paths and routes taken by our ancestors. As explained in a previous article, Globetrekker uses genetics, statistics, geology, and anthropology to estimate the location of thousands of haplogroups and tens of thousands of migratory paths across the globe.

Since launching Globetrekker, we have already added over 1,000 unique migration paths. There are now (as of last week) over 49,000 unique migration paths. Approximately one-hundred haplogroups were manually placed on the map using geographic coordinates from archaeological research and modern and ancient DNA data in order to anchor major migratory paths.

The rest is Globetrekker making history.

Miguel Vilar - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About The Author

Miguel Vilar, PhD.

Professor, Author, and Consultant for FamilyTreeDNA

Dr. Miguel Vilar was a Senior Program Officer for the National Geographic Society (NGS) and Lead Scientist for NGS’ Genographic Project, a multi-year anthropology study that aims to map human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. By training, Vilar is a molecular anthropologist and science writer.

In addition, Vilar is a professor of Biology and Anthropology and publishes in both anthropology and genetics academic journals, as well as in popular print and online magazines. Vilar is also a public speaker, writer, and consultant with FamilyTreeDNA.