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Professor to share how DNA analysis IDs the migration of the first Americans

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

LAWRENCE — Science can tell us all a few things about history.

In his upcoming Inaugural Distinguished Professor Lecture, Dennis O’Rourke, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, will share some of the findings about the initial dispersal and migration of indigenous Americans revealed through molecular genetic research.

The free lecture, “An Arctic Lens for American Dispersals: Genomes and Glacial Refugia,” will be at 5:30 p.m. March 28 in the Big 12 Room of the Kansas Union. The event is open to the public.

“The historical view of ‘waves of migration’ from an unspecified Asian locale is now being replaced by a model of hemispheric origins as part of the overall dispersal of modern humans throughout the world,” said O’Rourke, an anthropologist with an emphasis in genetics. Researchers now have evidence of development of a genetic source population in northern North America.

Ancient DNA and modern genomic data for both human and nonhuman organisms show that many populations abandoned northern latitudes for more southerly refuges more than 20,000 years ago, when glacial ice covering northern North America and Eurasia was at its most extreme. One of those refuges existed in southern Beringia, the land bridge connecting Asia and North America, and is the likely locus of origin of the Native American genome associated with modern indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere.

O’Rourke uses molecular genetic methods to address long-standing questions in prehistory. During the lecture he will review current research questions that focus on when the indigenous American genome became distinct from ancestral populations, the duration of isolation in Beringia, the timing and routes of these early dispersals into the hemisphere, and the identification of possible additional refuges in northern North America that may also have contributed to early and late human movement into the Americas.

O’Rourke is a KU alumnus who returned as a Foundation Distinguished professor in 2016. In addition he is director of the KU Ancient DNA Laboratory and associate director of the Laboratory of Biological Anthropology. He and his research teams use ancient DNA analysis to investigate the colonization and dispersal of the North American arctic and reveal how this evidence informs us about the earlier initial colonization of the Western Hemisphere. They have conducted fieldwork and research in Mexico, the Caribbean, the American Southwest and Great Basin, and the North American arctic.

Prior to joining KU, O’Rourke was at the University of Utah. His experience also includes two years as a National Science Foundation program director for biological anthropology. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He earned four degrees in anthropology, including his doctorate, all from KU.