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Africa to Aotearoa—the longest journey

Science teachers to use their own DNA to teach human evolution and migration

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, a leading biological anthropologist at the University of Otago, together with the Biology Educators’ Association (BEANZ), have devised an exciting way of teaching students about the evolution of modern humans (that’s us!), and their dispersal out of Africa and ultimately across the Pacific to Aotearoa New Zealand.

250 science/social science teachers will have the opportunity to send a DNA sample to the National Geographic Genographic Laboratory in the United States. They can use the results, video presentations by Lisa, and the written resource that has been prepared to teach the current understanding of human evolution. New information, both DNA and archaeological evidence, is constantly challenging, revising and resolving our understanding.

As part of the teaching module—funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Unlocking Curious Minds programme—students will video each other recounting what they know about their family history. Some of these videos will be uploaded to a public site. The message to students is that everyone’s story is interesting and important.

The aim of the project is to inspire young high school students with the amazing story of our shared maternal ancestor in Africa and how a small band of humans left Africa 60,000 years ago, spread across the entire world, and finally journeyed here to Aotearoa New Zealand—the longest and most dangerous leg of the human journey. The stories of our origins and different journeys are preserved in our DNA.

Although the number of DNA kits on offer is necessarily limited by cost, any teacher may use the resources. Professor Matisoo-Smith, Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon, and our former Governors General, Sir Jerry Mateparae and Sir Anand Satyanand, have made their own DNA results available for study by teachers who do not have their own.

This education programme is part of a much wider study by Professor Matisoo-Smith. Over the last three years she has sampled the DNA of over 2000 New Zealanders to determine their ancient origins. She is writing a book which will report her results and feature interviews with a range of her subjects.

Professor Matisoo-Smith’s group is working with National Geographic’s Genographic Project to add the Pacific expansion to the global picture of human dispersal out of Africa. “The Pacific is such an incredibly exciting place to work. We’ve got settlement representing some of the first human dispersals out of Africa, with the initial settlement of Australia and New Guinea some 45,000–50,000 years ago, and we’ve also got the last major human dispersal which was the settlement of Polynesia, extending all the way to South America. So it’s a wonderful place to be studying humans and human adaptations.”

For more information, contact Glenda Lewis:

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Africa to Aotearoa
Out of Africa


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More about Allan Wilson at Otago

Allan Wilson at Otago is a group of researchers in evolutionary biology. Allan Wilson was a New Zealander, born in Ngaruawahia. He spent most of his career at Berkeley, California, where he was a pioneer in the use of DNA to deduce that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor as recently as 6 million years ago, and that all humans alive today trace their origin to one woman who lived in Africa c150,000 years ago. We are all related. Allan trained a whole generation of evolutionary biologists. His findings were extremely controversial in the beginning. Sadly, Allan died of leukemia at age 57.