Human Ancestries and Migration: The Genographic Project

IOWC Visiting Lecturer: Himla Soodyall

October 9th, 2008 at 5-7pm
Leacock 232
McGill University, Montreal, QC


The National Geographic Society and IBM, in conjunction with the Waitt Family Foundation, launched a landmark global five-year study – "The Genographic Project" in April 2005. This project is a multi-dimensional initiative with three major activities: (1) a global DNA sampling aimed at collecting approximately 100,000 samples from indigenous populations around the world by ten researchers covering eight geographic regions and ancient DNA studies, and to use these samples for anthropological research in an attempt to answer fundamental questions about humankind's origins and to map the migrations of our ancestors, (2) a public participation component through which members of the public could purchase cheek swab kits to trace their ancestries, and (3) an educational legacy project that will benefit communities and peoples participating in the research.


The initial phase of the research makes use of mtDNA and Y-chromosome DNA variation to map patterns of genetic variation within sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, the data gleaned from the study would be used to (1) examine the present-day gene pool in sub-Saharan Africa to elucidate the spectrum of genetic variation and to distinguish between ancient and more recently derived DNA signatures, (2) establish the geographic distribution of the ancient DNA signatures, (3) to examine how recent history (eg. migrations to the region; Indian Ocean trade-activities; slave trade, etc.) have contributed to shaping the present-day gene pool, and (4) write the history of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa using a multidisciplinary approach.


While this research has the potential of contributing to one of the most exciting questions concerning human history, there are many challenges associated with research in the African context. How do we deal with the challenges and how can we use this research to reclaim Africa’s place in world history? This paper will address some of these issues and highlight some of the findings from sub-Saharan Africa to date.

Reception to follow.

Professor Himla Soodyall is Director of the Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit (HGDDRU) established by the South African Medical Research Council in conjunction with the National Health Laboratory Service and University of the Witwatersrand.

She received degrees from the University of Durban-Westville: B.Sc: (Microbiology, Biochemistry), 1985; B.Sc (Honours): (Microbiology), 1986 and the University of the Witwatersrand: M.Sc: (Biotechnology), 1986; PhD: (Human Genetics), 1993. Professor Soodyall was nominated to the Academy of Science, South Africa in 2003 and received the Order of Mapungubwe, Bronze medal, from President Mbeki for her contribution to science

In 2005, Professor Soodyall became the sub-Saharan African Principal Investigator of the Genographic Project  in which capacity she has forged a collaboration with Gwyn Campbell of the Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill.