Published: March 2006

Human Journey

Boy Painted Face

The Greatest Journey

The genes of people today tell of our ancestors' trek out of Africa to the far corners of the globe.

By James Shreeve
Photograph by Raghubir Singh

Everybody loves a good story, and when it's finished, this will be the greatest one ever told. It begins in Africa with a group of hunter-gatherers, perhaps just a few hundred strong. It ends some 200,000 years later with their six and a half billion descendants spread across the Earth, living in peace or at war, believing in a thousand different deities or none at all, their faces aglow in the light of campfires and computer screens.

In between is a sprawling saga of survival, movement, isolation, and conquest, most of it unfolding in the silence of prehistory. Who were those first modern people in Africa? What compelled a band of their descendants to leave their home continent as little as 50,000 years ago and expand into Eurasia? What routes did they take? Did they interbreed with earlier members of the human family along the way? When and how did humans first reach the Americas?

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