Origin: A book review by Bob Morris

Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas
Jennifer Raff
Twelve/Hatchette Book Group (February 2022)

A brilliant exploration of Indigenous histories in the Americas when people first came to them

I agree with Jennifer Raff that gaining a better understanding of the histories of Indigenous peoples on the American continents “is an important step” of an ongoing process, albeit an imperfect process. “We are now living through a revolution in the scientific study of human history,” one that has “upended the long-standing model that describes the final steps that humans took on their journey from Africa across the globe.”

The model that has dominated American archeology for decades is wrong. “People had already been in the Americas for thousands of years by the time Clovis tools made their appearance. The updated story of how humans arrived here is still being assembled piece by piece, from clues left all over the continent deep below the surface of a muddy pond in Florida, within the genome recovered from a tooth in Siberia, in layers of dirt baked by the hot Texas sun.”

Raff shares what she has earned — thus far — in response to questions such as these:

“Who were among the first people to arrive in the Americas?”
“Approximately when?”
“Where did they come from?”

and given the responses to these four questions, “HOW were these determinations made?”

Years ago, Lilly Tomlin suggested that reality is a “collective hunch.” So many assumptions and premises in archeology and then genetics have been collective hunches — or assumptions — based on what was then the most reliable information available to those best qualified. Moreover, as Raff reminds us: “These three themes — the histories reconstructed from genetics and archaeology, the story of how we achieved this knowledge, and the broader cultural questions that are raised by the research conducted the field — are inexorably intertwined; you can’t understand the whole story by examining any one of them in isolation.”

Raff inserts a number of mini-commentaries throughout her lively and eloquent narrative. They serve several purposes. First,  they illuminate and enrich the context — the frame of reference — of key insights in the given chapter. Also, Raff uses them to suggest causal relationships and multi-dimensional sequences of special significance. Moreover, they establish a digressive pace for the narrative, one that creates (at least for this reader) a sense of exploration not only of time but also of place and theme. I am again reminded of my favorite passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (Chapter 2, “Little Gidding”):

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

These are the mini-commentaries:

o Alligator and the Serpent Mounds (Pages 6-7)
o Who Built “Jefferson’s Mound”? (17-20)
o Mitochondrial and Y Lineages in the Americas (43-45)
o European Influences on Ancient North America (46-52)
o Geoarchaeology (58-60)
o The Meadcowcroft Site (66-70)

o The Rise and Fall of the Three-Waved Migration Hypothesis (73-77)
o The Origin of Clovis (79-81)
o The Western Stemmed Tradition (83-84)
o Biological Distance Studies (88-89)
o Genderbin Hunter-Gatherer Societies (101-105)
o The Importance of Lithics (107-108)

o The Microblade Toolkit and How It Was made (114-117)
o Evidence for Child Toolmakers (118-121)
o Genetic Legacies from Archaic Humans (179-180)
o Mitochondrial Models of Dispersal (208-209)
o Archaeological Evidence of Population Y? (217-221)
o Arctic Adaptations in Native Americans (239-240)

When writing this book, it was not Jennifer Raff’s intention to provide “the final, complete story of the peopling of the Americas”; rather, “a framework for understanding future developments in the field and an appreciation of the history and complexity that has brought us to this present moment.” She succeeds brilliantly. Bravo!



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