Anthropologist speaks at Town Hall South

November 16, 2012
Spencer Wells

The possibility exists that a person on Facebook could have one billion “friends,” the number of Facebook users across the world. Instead, said geneticist and anthropologist Spencer Wells, a vast majority of Facebook users have 130 friends.

And, believe it or not, when man was part of the hunter/gatherer culture, the group was generally made up of 150 people. So it seems, mankind has not advanced past 150 friends in the last 50,000 years. The number 150 plays a large part in the current-day man’s connection to others in the same culture because, Wells said, most people cannot recall personal information past 150 people.

“That seems to be the limit of our ability to keep track,” Wells said.

Wells, the explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, spoke Tuesday during Town Hall South at Upper St. Clair High School about his vast knowledge on the origin of mankind. He leads the Genographic Project to map our ancestors and how they populated the world.

One of the largest changes in history was when man switched from being a hunter and gatherer to agriculture. Diseases, such as smallpox and malaria, were transmitted from animals to humans, and the assault on the human body began when simple carbohydrates, such as corn, wheat and rice, were introduced to the diet. Teeth from the era were found with decay, something not found in earlier teeth.

In the agricultural society, sugars were introduced, with Wells calling glucose “our Achilles heel.”

When man went from hunting and gathering to raising food, average heights dropped, and so did the life span. It was not until the 20th century, when modern medicine was introduced, that life spans began to increase.

Charles Darwin proposed man evolved from the apes of Africa with apes populating the continent, most likely eastern Africa, about 23 million years ago. About 16 million years ago, the apes began to travel when the land mass now known as Africa moved, allowing a connection for migration.

Geneticists are now able to trace the origins of man to the beginning, following DNA markers. Those with the longest branches of DNA markers are found in Africa and can be traced back 15,000 years when the migration entered the Americas.

As for citizens of the United States today, Wells was quick to point out, “ I”m a mutt and most of us are mutts.”

One of the troubling statistics Wells is finding is the extinction of certain languages. In the world of 7.1 billion people, there are roughly 6,000 languages. However, by the end of the century about half of the languages will be gone.

“A language dies every two weeks,” Wells said.

And while early man died of trauma, now deaths results from strokes, diabetes, heart attacks and blood pressure-related illnesses.

DNA data collection continues with more than 470,000 individuals completed.

To survive, mankind does not need to revert to the hunting/gathering lifestyle, Wells said. But survival comes at a cost.

“For the first time in history, we have to take meds to feel normal,” Wells said.



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