Guy Gugliotta on “The Great Human Migration”

Guy Gugliotta has had three writing lives, as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, a congressional reporter in Washington, D.C., and, for the last ten years, a freelance science writer. He writes for the Washington Post, the New York Times, National Geographic, Wired and Discover, in addition to being a regular contributor to Smithsonian, for which he wrote "The Great Human Migration" in July's issue. "I've been writing about human evolution for nearly ten years now and have watched the arguments ebb and flow more quickly than ever, mostly because of the way DNA analysis has revolutionized the field," says Gugliotta. "This story was a great opportunity to try to bring everything together." We recently caught up with him to talk about his experience.

How much did you know about the difference between modern humans and other extinct hominids going into this?
Quite a bit. From childhood reading Alley Oop or B.C. or watching "The Flintstones," most kids have an idea about the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals (although Neanderthals aren't nearly as thuggish as the stereotypes suggest they are). And the major Australopithecine discoveries have been made during my lifetime with accompanying fanfares, so I have seen the results of much of the research even as it is produced.

How did you go about researching and reporting this story?
First I read or reread the scientific papers over the last decade or so. Then I studied up on DNA analysis and what it can or cannot tell us. Then I needed to find a representative site to illustrate the story, either from the standpoint of the fossil record, the archaeology or the evolution of modern human behavior. Blombos Cave was a momentous and fairly recent discovery documenting modern human behavior, so I went to South Africa.

What surprised you the most?
The fact that the archaeological record, the human fossil remains and DNA analysis offer enough information to sketch a much more detailed picture than I imagined. I have to say, though, there are some unusual loose ends. I'm skeptical of the interpretation given in the Qafzeh story and I think Jwalapuram, in India, could be a much more important site than it appears.

What are some of the big questions still to be tackled?
In no particular order of importance: is the Hobbit a pathological Homo Sapien or a separate species; what happened to the Neanderthals, were they wiped out, did they die out, or were they absorbed by their modern successors; very few modern human remains have been discovered that are older than ca. 20,000 bp and younger than ca. 150,000 bp. And there are currently no modern human remains in Europe that are associated with modern human artifacts before 20,000 years ago. The first 20,000 years of modern human settlement in Europe are documented only by artifacts. Why is this; and finally, when, really, and how, did modern humans settle the New World? For years it was blasphemy to say that this great migration occurred before 11,000 years ago, but over the last decade, the authenticity of Chile's Monte Verde site, at 14,000 years, has come to be accepted. There are other researchers who say the human presence in the Americas may go much farther back in time.

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