Sun striking the ClocktowerWednesday 7 June 2017 12:38pm

Lisa Matisoo Smith
Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith

School students who may have wondered where their teachers came from may not have to wonder much longer.

University of Otago biological anthropologist Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith and the Biology Educators' Association, through the Allan Wilson at Otago research group, have devised a novel way of teaching secondary school students about the evolution and migration of modern humans, using DNA tests.

About 250 New Zealand science and social science teachers are being given the opportunity to send samples of their own DNA to the National Geographic Genographic Laboratory in the United States.

They can then use those results, along with video presentations by Professor Matisoo-Smith and written resources to teach the current understanding of human evolution.

“The aim of the project is to inspire young high school students with the amazing story of our shared maternal ancestor in Africa,” Professor Matisoo-Smith says, “and how a small band of humans left Africa 60,000 years ago, spread across the entire world, and finally travelled 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,” she says.

As part of the teaching module - funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's 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, Professor Matisoo-Smith says.

The DNA kits – which cost about US$200 each – are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with a limit of one per school.

Professor Matisoo-Smith, Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon and former Governors General Sir Jerry Mateparae and Sir Anand Satyanand have made their own DNA results available for study by teachers who are unable to obtain a kit to generate their own results.

During the past three years, Professor Matisoo-Smith has sampled the DNA of more than 2,000 New Zealanders to determine their ancient origins.

Her group is working with the National Geographic 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 to 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, please contact:

Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith
Department of Anatomy, University of Otago
Tel 03 479 6827


Glenda Lewis
Mob 027 210 0997

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

Electronic addresses (including email accounts, instant messaging services, or telephone accounts) published on this page are for the sole purpose of contact with the individuals concerned, in their capacity as officers, employees or students of the University of Otago, or their respective organisation. Publication of any such electronic address is not to be taken as consent to receive unsolicited commercial electronic messages by the address holder.
Back to top