Ancient DNA: Uncovering the Secrets of Our Species

Course Description

Ancient DNA uncovers the history of our species and has upended many traditional beliefs. To understand this, we first bring concepts from multiple fields required to build the backdrop to probe ancient DNA, and then conceptualize standard analyses, to compare populations. This gives us tools to develop the artistic skill of understanding and digesting analyses to uncover hidden stories from genetic data. The skill of interpretation -rather than how to generate analyses- is increasingly important and reflective of the way science is moving.

The focus of the course is to understand the origins and relationships of human populations, informed by ancient DNA. Even a single individual contains a historical record of every ancestor, and we can estimate the size of the populations of those ancestors going back hundreds of thousands of years. Groups of individuals inform us about diversity, and comparing populations over time indicates how people moved and populations are connected.

Our research lab (the Reich Lab at Harvard Medical School), produces over 50% of the world’s human ancient DNA. As both a researcher and bioinformatics director for the lab I am uniquely familiar with the research questions and how they can be conveyed to a curious audience.

This field is a happy combination of multidisciplinary techniques. We’ll cover how these have allowed collections to be analyzed. For example, we now know that Stonehenge in England began construction around 5000 years ago, but almost the entire population was replaced by migrants, who continued to build the structure.

You will be asked to read review papers that gently summarize terminology and techniques that are used, for discussions. Genetic case studies that highlight particular aspects of ancient DNA analyses will be used to develop interpretive skills. Precomputed analyses, packaged into a custom interactive web framework will be provided to probe the case studies. For the final project, you can choose genetic case studies to apply skills, working either alone or in groups. Or, you may follow a personal project and we can pull data and resources to support this.

By the end of this course, you will:
• Understand the Homo sapiens origin story from millions of years ago when we were not the only human species
• Have explored the major cultural transitions of humans, how this has changed society and its visible impact on our DNA
• Become familiar with our migration patterns taken over the past 60,000 years
• Be introduced to comparative population genetic analysis, and apply this to extensive interactive case studies looking at specific populations to discern their history
• See life differently across wide scales; individuals as an incidental container of genes, and individuals as members of populations, entities in their own right with histories captured in their collective DNA
• Have seen multiple examples of surprises that we have learned from ancient DNA

This will provide a framework for understanding our history from a genetic perspective, and enable you to extend their new genomic understanding to deeper biological/historical/anthropological questions.


This course is designed to be very accessible. Concepts of biology, genomics, statistics, mathematics, and history are brought together in a conceptual, intuitive way without requiring technical skills. Thus the only prerequisite is to be interested, and be able to operate a browser.


One Section Available to Choose From:

Online sections of Pre-College courses are offered in one of the following modalities: Asynchronous, Mostly asynchronous, or Blended. Please review full information regarding the experience here.

Dates: June 27, 2022 - July 15, 2022
Duration: 3 Weeks
Meeting Times: M-F 12:15P-3:05P
Status: Closed
Format: On-Campus
Instructor(s): Swapan Mallick
Course Number: 10079