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Origin  By  cover art

Origin

By: Jennifer Raff
Narrated by: Tanis Parenteau,Jennifer Raff - Interview,Yvonne Russo - Interview
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Publisher's Summary

From celebrated anthropologist Jennifer Raff comes the untold story - and fascinating mystery - of how humans migrated to the Americas.

Origin is the story of who the first peoples in the Americas were, how and why they made the crossing, how they dispersed south, and how they lived based on a new and powerful kind of evidence: their complete genomes. Origin provides an overview of these new histories throughout North and South America, and a glimpse into how the tools of genetics reveal details about human history and evolution.

Twenty thousand years ago, people crossed a great land bridge from Siberia into Western Alaska and then dispersed southward into what is now called the Americas. Until we venture out to other worlds, this remains the last time our species has populated an entirely new place, and this event has been a subject of deep fascination and controversy. No written records - and scant archaeological evidence - exist to tell us what happened or how it took place. Many different models have been proposed to explain how the Americas were peopled and what happened in the thousands of years that followed.  

A study of both past and present, Origin explores how genetics is currently being used to construct narratives that profoundly impact Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It serves as a primer for anyone interested in how genetics has become entangled with identity in the way that society addresses the question "Who is indigenous?"

©2022 Jennifer Raff (P)2022 Twelve

Critic Reviews

"Social and genetic history cannot be disentangled. ORIGIN also highlights the colonizers’ evolving cultural myths that shape and are shaped by their science. This is a valuable read for consumers of popular genetics who are not aware how much science is built on colonial theft, and how Indigenous peoples push back to improve science." (Dr. Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta, Canadian research chair in Indigenous peoples, technoscience, and society, and author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science)

"Rarely does a book combine the scientific, the compassionate, and the respectful when engaging with genomes, histories, and the movement of peoples. Even more rarely does a non-Indigenous scientist listen to - and learn from - Indigenous interlocutors, past and present. Jennifer Raff’s ORIGIN deftly weaves a critical narrative of discoveries, biases, achievements, faults, and possibilities, offering an integrative, caring, and scientifically rigorous approach to thinking with and about the histories of the First Peoples of the Americas. Filled with complex but accessible archeological, historical, and genomic analyses presented in the context of honest and often difficult narratives, ORIGIN is a necessary and elegant text." (Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton University and author of Why We Believe)

"Ancient DNA, extracted from bones thousands upon thousands of years old, has the potential to rewrite the story of the human past. In ORIGIN, Jennifer Raff expertly explains the complicated science behind it, how it can tell us who the first inhabitants of the Americas really were, and how they got there. ORIGIN balances its cutting-edge command of the science and its interpretation with a deep commitment to the ethical implications of this work. The result is a lively, learned, and wonderfully told guide to a fascinating topic." (Patrick Wyman, author of The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years That Shook the World and host of Tides of History)

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A Superb Account Of The Science Of Indigenous American Anthropology

Dr. Jennifer Raff, a veteran science communicator* and an anthropological geneticist, has written a magnificent book on the occupation of the Americas by the First Peoples. She presents the various conflicting theories concerning the immigration of indigenous peoples throughout North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean.

Raff sides with what may be a majority opinion held by her colleagues that everything we learned in High School more than twenty years ago is wrong. That musty hypothesis, that the ancestors of indigenous Americans crossed a land bridge between Siberia and North America about 13,000 years ago, spreading across the Americas, hasn't aged well. Genetic and archaeological evidence points to a much earlier peopling of the Americas. Further, they may have first come here by boat and traveled down the west coast.

Raff doesn't hesitate to point out the devastating abuse of indigenous Americans by colonizing nations over the last 530 years. She writes of the historical biases that have ignored the First People's past and emphasized the history of the European colonization of the continents. In short, Columbus didn't discover America. Neither did Leif Erickson. Another history deserves to be told.

Raff firmly repudiates what readers will learn were the unethical and bigoted practices of some scientists who--in the course of their research over more than a century--showed egregious disrespect in ignoring the traditions, opinions, and sensitivities of indigenous people. Raff shows us how this has caused a damaging rift between scientists and indigenous Americans. However, she gives some sterling examples of trust being established between scientists and indigenous peoples. She further outlines steps that need to be taken to maintain ethical scientific standards that serve indigenous communities.

Raff is a good storyteller. Throughout the book she lets her imagination work out possible scenarios for how specimens of human bones were left behind thousands of years ago. As a young mother she can't help but impart some poignancy in her accounts of those burial sites where toddlers are interred. In doing so she highlights--as she does throughout the book--the humanity of the person whose remains are the subject of research.

At one point in the work she takes the reader into her gene sequencing lab where she gives a detailed description of how she prepares to enter a needfully sterile environment. There she painstakingly extracts a DNA sample from an ancient tooth. In her field, such skill is described as "having good hands". Given her position as a senior scientist, she rarely gets to go into a sterile lab like this very often to do basic research. We learn she's a bit unsure whether she still has "good hands". To her relief, she does. While she waits for the sample to incubate, she shadow boxes around the lab in order to stay warm in its very cool temperatures, and in order to maintain another set of hand skills. For those listening to the interview at the end of the audiobook, you learn that she's also a martial artist.**

And this humanizes Raff...as does the story of her learning how to be a "Bear Guard" on an Alaskan dig, where she was briefly stalked by one of North America's largest carnivores: a Polar Bear.

When I last checked, this book had made the top ten best seller’s list for the New York Times. This clearly will be one of the top science books of the year. Hopefully, it won't be the last one she ever writes for the general public. I'd love to see her do one for children.

Count me as one of her greatest fans.

*Raff has written science articles for the Huffington Post and the Guardian, and has a popular science blog, "Violent Metaphors".

**For those who follow her blog, you likely already knew about her martial arts training. Raff has been studying martial arts for over thirty years.

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Important Ideas, Brain-Splitting Narration

I read a review of this book in the New York Times, and was so excited to read. But the book was sold out! So, I listened. First, Jennifer Raff, brilliant though she may well be, has a nasal Midwestern voice that was often painful to listen to. Someone in her editorial team should have had the courage to tell her "no" when she suggested narrating the audiobook. Bad, bad, bad decision.

More significantly, the content is so important in so many ways. Understanding the ways in which Western academics have disrespected the histories, artifacts, and overall autonomy of Indigenous People is critical learning for Americans. Raff's emphasis on the ethics of archaeology and anthropology is urgent. However, her attention to the minutia of genetic research is nothing less than indulgent. I simply do not care about the temperature of labs or how careful one must be with clothing. I get it. These sections were excruciatingly dull unless you are one of her grad students, which is, I expect how she came to think they were interesting at all. Essentially, the book seems like a tortuously long article. Because the research she draws upon was not new to me, I learned little through Raff's self-indulgent prose I wanted so much more.

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Science peppered with PC Nonsense

Suppose a book on evolution were peppered with advice that scientists should check in with Creationists and incorporate their feelings and views in their papers. This is the kind of advice Raff spreads throughout her book on the interesting subject of the genetics of the first migrants to the Americas. We are supposed to believe that present day descendants of people who came 10 to 40,000 years ago should have a say over how scientists handle and interpret ancient evidence. Very very few if any of the tribes today or that were here in 1490 live or lived in the same places as their ancient ancestors. More than a few centuries in one place is a rarity. Should modern day Mayans have anything to say about evidence left by the disappeared Olmecs? Should I, only 3 generations removed from my Jewish ancestors in Bohemia have a say about bones and DNA analysis of Bohemians from 500 or even 200 years ago?

Science and religion see the world in very different ways. For good reason we do not ask Creationists to help us interpret DNA from before their date for the beginning of the universe. But for Raff American Indian creationists (and almost all of them are) should have a say and for reasons that are entirely political and not scientific.

Readers who prefer not to mix religion and politics with science can find better books about ancient and recent DNA and what it reveals about culture. Who We Are And How We Got Here by David Reich immediately comes to mind.

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Subtitle a bit misleading

I looked for the book because I was interested in the science, turns out the book is mostly her sharing her moral code regarding research. Fair points, just not What I was the most interested in. So it’s not really about the genetic history of the americas as it is about the history of how researchers interacted with native Americans.

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NOT really on topic AT ALL.

Bought it after hearing author interviewed. She did NOT say that it is about archeology offending Native America, but that IS all she writes about. Waste of time and money. UNLESS you want to wallow in castigation of everyone who ever failed to prostrate themselves to some Tribal Government before thinking about pre-Columbian America.

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30% Science, 70% Woke Diatribe

If you’re looking to learn something, maybe keep looking. It was a lot of time spent without a lot of usable content.

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Dr. Raff is a gifted writer

What impressed me most about this book, beyond the fascinating information, were the narrative passages where she mused about how things might have happened. They were so detailed and vivid, it made me think that Dr. Raff would make an excellent fiction writer if she ever wants a second career.

It is great to see someone in the scientific community own up to the way scientists have sometimes treated subjects of research as inhuman data sources. Dr. Raff weaves in ideas about how people should be treated without ever getting preachy or diverging far from the main point. Very well done.

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good book, horrible narration

The book provides an overview of what genetic archeology teaches us on the first people in the Americas with some insights on the work of researchers.

The narration is highly unpleasant, sometimes. separating. every. word. with. a. long. pause. making it hard to listen.

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Political correctness ruins this

I thought this would be a story about how scientific evidence has changed our understanding of the earliest American history. Instead the dominant theme is the evils of colonialism and of the European historians who wrote the original version of that history.

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might be a better read than a listen

fascinating reframing of the subject, interesting companion to 1491 on the same theme. author's poor ear for non-English pronunciation is distracting and undercuts her credibility, but i appreciated her obsession with the ethics of science intersecting with indigenous communities. anyone who has attempted to hike across arctic tundra will immediately see the logic of focusing on the sea coast route out of Asia

1 person found this helpful