We are all Africans, the Italian geneticist and writer assures. And should we want to find «genuine» Europeans, we would have to go over 30,000 years back in history, to the time when the last Neanderthals became extinct. Through the study of the genetic code of our ancestors, Guido Barbujani (Adria, 1955) tries to draw the story of the great human migrations, those early hominids that left Africa to populate the planet and had to adapt to the conditions they found. Such mobility of our ancestors has shaped our species and, although we all have a very diverse DNA, Barbujani claims that we continue to be part of a genetic continuity.
Guido Barbujani is full professor of genetics and population genetics in the Department of Life Sciences and Biotechnology of the University of Ferrara, where he researches different aspects of human diversity. He considers that the concept of race cannot be applied to humans, that speaking about ethnicity is a mistake and the best term to collect all the richness and variety of humankind is populations.
Thirty years ago, along with the Australian biostatistician and anthropologist Robert Sokal, he tried to scientifically develop a Darwin theory to the effect that if we could draw a complete family tree of the world’s languages, we would get the complete family tree of human migration history. However, back then, such an endeavour was impossible and the project was abandoned. Now Barbujani retakes it. He leads an international project involving anthropologists, linguists and geneticists from different countries. During the next four years they will take genetic samples from populations around the world and study their languages. Because in the end, Barbujani claims, everything comes down to telling and deciphering good stories, which is what population genetics is about. Barbujani participated in the conference «Evolution and Culture» in Barcelona, organized by the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, CCCB) and B-Debate. «I am interested in hearing and telling stories. Evolutionary genetics, to which I devote myself, is like a long story, like a novel with many adventures and plot twists and extreme characters», he says. «Imagine: the life of the Neanderthals, the life of humans out of Africa, when they found each other… fascinating!»
What does the study of the genetics of past populations tell us?
Why is it so hard to read our story in DNA?
It does not seem easy…
That’s a somewhat controversial statement. It is doubtful that the far-right parties that are gaining more and more power with racist discourses in Europe will share that idea.
Hutu and Tutsi believed they were two different ethnicities…
Evolutionary psychology often explained racism as a survival strategy: our ancestors had to know quickly if those in front of them were friends or enemies. And an easy way to find out was through physical appearance.
«Evolutionary genetics, to which I devote myself, is like a long story, like a novel with many adventures and plot twists and extreme characters»
«Problems with the integration of different people exist, and they would also exist if immigrants came from elsewhere»
What data does evolutionary genetics use to study populations?
And what happened?
And can we read it, just like that?
But now you go back to that idea.
You may succeed in solving the mystery of Euskera, whose origin remains unknown.
Italian, male, perhaps with the same political affiliation…
Cristina Sáez. Science journalist (Barcelona).
«The only thing all the race catalogues published by rigorous scientists had in common was that they contradicted each other»
«Evolution is based on natural selection, but also relies heavily on chance»