Chris Johns/National Geographic Society
Bushmen armed with bows and arrows walk across a salt pan in Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Namibia. Scientists believe the Bushmen of southern Africa may have closer genetic ties to the original humans than anyone else on the planet.
Bushmen armed with bows and arrows walk across a salt pan in Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Namibia. Scientists believe the Bushmen of southern Africa may have closer genetic ties to the original humans than anyone else on the planet. Chris Johns/National Geographic Society
Genetic paleontologist Dr. Spencer Wells in Namibia with San Bushmen.
Genetic paleontologist Dr. Spencer Wells in Namibia with San Bushmen. Mark Read
On Wednesday, the National Geographic Society in partnership with IBM is launching the "Genographic Project" — a five-year effort to collect and analyze more than 100,000 DNA samples in order to trace the origins and movement of the human race.
Dr. Spencer Wells, the program's director and a Society "explorer-in-residence," tells NPR's Alex Chadwick the Genographic Project will be the largest and most comprehensive public database of anthropological genetic information ever compiled. He calls the DNA molecule a "time machine" that can answer the most basic questions of human history: Where did I come from, and how did I get here?
"DNA can help us go all the way back to the beginning," he says. "We can go back to the very early days of our species, to infer where we come from and how we got to where we live today."
By studying patterns in DNA, scientists will be able to map the migration of the human species — and may pinpoint where the original humans came from in Africa, and how humans spread and diversified as they moved to distant parts of the globe.
Wells says some ethnic groups, like the San Bushmen of Namibia, have retained closer genetic lineages to the earliest humans. But in spite of the tremendous diversity of human beings, we are all "effectively members of an extended family.
"The amazing thing to come out of all of this is how closely related we all are," Wells says. "We share a common ancestor — a man who lived in Africa around 60,000 years ago. That's only about 2,000 generations."
Eventually, those who volunteered their own DNA for the project will be able to go to a Web site to discover what Wells calls a "personal journey."
"You're going to be able to... figure out the journey of your Y chromosome if you're male, and the mitochondrial DNA if you're female — the journey your ancestors took from those very early days in Africa to where you live today," he says.