How Humans Migrated Across The Globe Over 200,000 Years: An Animated Look

Cov­er­age of the refugee cri­sis peaked in 2015. By the end of the year, note researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen, “this was one of the hottest top­ics, not only for politi­cians, but for par­tic­i­pants in the pub­lic debate,” includ­ing far-right xeno­phobes giv­en mega­phones. What­ev­er their intent, Daniel Trilling argues at The Guardian, the explo­sion of refugee sto­ries had the effect of fram­ing “these new­ly arrived peo­ple as oth­ers, peo­ple from ‘over there,’ who had lit­tle to do with Europe itself and were strangers.”

Such a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion ignores the cru­cial con­text of Europe’s pres­ence in near­ly every part of the world over the past sev­er­al cen­turies. And it frames mass migra­tion as extra­or­di­nary, not the norm. The cri­sis aspect is real, the result of dan­ger­ous­ly accel­er­at­ed move­ment of cap­i­tal and cli­mate change. But mass move­ments of peo­ple seek­ing bet­ter con­di­tions, safe­ty, oppor­tu­ni­ty, etc. may be the old­est and most com­mon fea­ture of human his­to­ry, as the Sci­ence Insid­er video shows above.

The yel­low arrows that fly across the globe in the dra­mat­ic ani­ma­tion make it seem like ear­ly humans moved by bul­let train. But when con­se­quen­tial shifts in cli­mate occurred at a glacial pace—and economies were built on what peo­ple car­ried on their backs—mass migra­tions hap­pened over the span of thou­sands of years. Yet they hap­pened con­tin­u­ous­ly through­out last 200,000 to 70,000 years of human his­to­ry, give or take. We may nev­er know what drove so many of our dis­tant ances­tors to spread around the world.

But how can we know what routes they took to get there? “Thanks to the amaz­ing work of anthro­pol­o­gists and pale­on­tol­o­gists like those work­ing on Nation­al Geographic’s Geno­graph­ic Project,” Sci­ence Insid­er explains, “we can begin to piece togeth­er the sto­ry of our ances­tors.” The Geno­graph­ic Project was launched by Nation­al Geo­graph­ic in 2005, “in col­lab­o­ra­tion with sci­en­tists and uni­ver­si­ties around the world.” Since then, it has col­lect­ed the genet­ic data of over 1 mil­lion peo­ple, “with a goal of reveal­ing pat­terns of human migra­tion.”

The project assures us it is “anony­mous, non­med­ical, and non­prof­it.” Par­tic­i­pants sub­mit­ted their own DNA with Nation­al Geographic’s “Geno” ances­try kits (and may still do so until next month). They can receive a “deep ances­try” report and cus­tomized migra­tion map; and they can learn how close­ly they are relat­ed to “his­tor­i­cal genius­es,” a cat­e­go­ry that, for some rea­son, includes Jesse James.

Do projects like these veer close to recre­at­ing the “race sci­ence” of pre­vi­ous cen­turies? Are they valid ways of recon­struct­ing the “human sto­ry” of ances­try, as Nation­al Geo­graph­ic puts it? Crit­ics like sci­ence jour­nal­ist Angela Sai­ni are skep­ti­cal. “DNA test­ing can­not tell you that,” she says in an inter­view on NPR, but it can “make us believe that iden­ti­ty is bio­log­i­cal, when iden­ti­ty is cul­tur­al.” Nation­al Geo­graph­ic seems to dis­avow asso­ci­a­tions between genet­ics and race, writ­ing, “sci­ence defines you by your DNA, soci­ety defines you by the col­or of your skin.” But it does so at the end of a video about a group of peo­ple bond­ing over their sim­i­lar fea­tures.

Despite the sig­nif­i­cance mod­ern humans have ascribed to vari­a­tions in phe­no­type, race is a cul­tur­al­ly defined cat­e­go­ry and not a sci­en­tif­ic one. argues Joseph L. Graves, pro­fes­sor of bio­log­i­cal sci­ences at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nano­engi­neer­ing.. “Every­thing we know about our genet­ics has proven that we are far more alike than we are dif­fer­ent. If more peo­ple under­stood that, it would be eas­i­er to debunk the myth that peo­ple of a cer­tain race are ‘nat­u­ral­ly’ one way or anoth­er,” or that refugees and asy­lum seek­ers are dan­ger­ous oth­ers instead of just like every oth­er human who has moved around the world over the last 200,000 years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Col­or­ful Ani­ma­tion Visu­al­izes 200 Years of Immi­gra­tion to the U.S. (1820-Present)

Where Did Human Beings Come From? 7 Mil­lion Years of Human Evo­lu­tion Visu­al­ized in Six Min­utes

Ian McK­ellen Reads a Pas­sion­ate Speech by William Shake­speare, Writ­ten in Defense of Immi­grants

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jeremy says:

    Lat­est infor­ma­tion shoes first wave of peo­ple to reach Amer­i­c­as at 25,000. Oth­er­wise, good.

  • Leon Katsepontes says:

    Inter­est­ing but this seems out of date. Recent dis­cov­er­ies of remains in Greece dat­ed as approx. 210,000 years old and dis­play a mix­ture of Homo sapi­en and Nean­derthal traits. Anoth­er dis­cov­ery in Israel of Homo Sapi­en remains are dat­ed to approx, as 200,000 years old. A dis­cov­ery in Chi­na revealed 100 000 year old human teeth. A more cur­rent read­ing of human evo­lu­tion seems to sup­port devel­op­ment of Homo Sapi­ens and inter­ac­tion with oth­er inhab­i­tants in mul­ti­ple loca­tions and at least 100 000 years ear­li­er than the above post indi­cates. What we know is only as good as the most recent dis­cov­er­ies. The sto­ry above is a good one but much sim­pli­fied. A neat the­o­ry. Real­i­ty, as we are dis­cov­er­ing, is much more com­plex.

  • Leon Katsepontes says:

    A small post script:

    dis­cov­er­ies of 300 000 year old remains in Moroc­co from a short Guardian arti­cle.

  • Tom Hudson says:

    Have any to share with an inter­est­ed layper­son? Thanks

  • Mark says:

    Intetest­ing ani­ma­tion, but sad­ly lack­ing by not show­ing the great­est known seaborne migra­tion — that of the Pacif­ic peo­ples leav­ing the shores of Asia and pop­u­lat­ing the far flung islands of our plan­et’s biggest ocean. The path and time­line of those seaborne migra­tions is well known through DNA, lan­guage, and archae­ol­o­gy. Why would you leave that out??

  • Tjb says:

    I sus­pect the Pacif­ic migra­tion was like half an hour ago in the time scale of things, just before man reached Antar­ti­ca.

  • Leon Katsepontes says:

    A cou­ple of arti­cles on the shake up to the wide­ly accept­ed sto­ry :

    The out of Africa the­o­ry rep­re­sents what was known at a cer­tain point. The sto­ry, if you will excuse the expres­sion, is evolv­ing. I think we do not know exact­ly what hap­pened. The ten­den­cy of dis­cov­er­ies to give rise to an over­ar­ch­ing the­o­ry is under­stand­able but this the­o­ry does not hold for long it seems.

  • Michael Logan says:

    Inter­est­ing dis­play but it would have been inter­est­ing to see geo­graph­ic changes (Dog­ger­land) and ice age extents.

  • Shane Lyons says:

    A cou­ple of years ago a ground stone axe found in north­ern Aus­tralia was dat­ed to 65,000 y.a., so that push­es the out-of-Africa date back a lot fur­ther.

  • shymee morris says:

    this video and the essay was very inter­est­ing and it opened my brain up on the out­look of the world in mod­ern years . this goes to show i will learn anew and fresh things from the mod­ern times . thank you !

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.