Hike and Pluck: The adventure of delving into the past using genetics and chickens

By Michael Herrera

Genetic research is often viewed as endless laboratory work with little room for real adventure. While partly true, this is not the case when you are researching archaeogenetics: genetics that delves into the human past.  I am Michael Herrera, a PhD researcher at the University of Adelaide and this is my adventure:

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The rice terraces of Banaue, Ifugao. Courtesy: M. Herrera

My research involves using genetic variations in domesticated animals as a way to understand prehistoric human migration. This is based on the premise that when prehistoric humans moved around they carried items with them. This included a living larder, including animals such as chickens and pigs. We know this because we see bones of domestic animals in archaeological sites from regions where these animals are not native.  However, in areas with thermal conditions not conducive for preservation of ancient DNA, like Island Southeast Asia and the Pacific, a modern proxy is the next best thing. This simply means I needed to collect feathers from modern chicken populations and study the genetic differences between them. If chickens on two islands are more closely related than chickens on a third island you can be fairly confident that humans migrated to the third island much earlier. This led me on an island hopping adventure collecting chicken feathers along the putative route that early humans used, from East Asia to the Pacific some millennia ago.  Hiking for longish hours, chasing after flighty chickens and, if by some miracle I managed to catch one; plucking feathers to be sent back to the lab. In doing this I met interesting people, made new friends, and observed the life-ways of different cultures at a closer perspective. Knowing that the people I met could possibly be related, even remotely, to the people who migrated into the Pacific many ages ago makes me feel privileged and lucky. I would say this enriched my life and definitely added a more human dimension to my research.

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One of many village chickens. Courtesy: M. Herrera

I guess finding this sort of feeling is what life is all about, that feeling is what drives scientists to figure out what happened in the past (or what may happen in future). This makes the lab work and data analysis, which normally follows after the adventure, exciting and fun! And despite the long hours in the lab or at a computer desk, I can honestly say that being an archaeogenetic scientist is an adventure!

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