J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee
PO Box 220, Los Alamos, NM 87544

JROMC  is pleased to announce our upcoming annual free memorial lecture. The 51th J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture will feature Professor Jennifer Raff, on Monday, June 24th, 2024 beginning at 7:00 pm at Duane Smith Auditorium, Los Alamos, NM. 

Title: 

Ancient DNA and the Peopling of the Americas

Abstract: 

How–and when–did people first come to the American continents? For many years, scientists thought these questions had a straightforward answer. However, in the last two decades, this model has been shattered by archaeological evidence of people in the Americas thousands of years earlier than the Clovis peoples. As researchers have worked to construct and test new models for the initial peopling of the Americas, they have increasingly incorporated evidence from the genomes of ancient peoples, which provide an archive of human population history. Ancient DNA has revealed a complex story of migrations, isolation, and adaptation, one which is still unfolding as more genomes are studied every year.

In this talk, we will examine the latest genetic and archaeological evidence for the origins of the First Peoples. We will piece together a story told by fragments of DNA recovered from a tooth in Siberia, by a small broken knife found deep below the surface of a muddy pond in Florida, by the footprints of children left thousands of years ago on the banks of an ancient lake in New Mexico. We will explore why the same pieces of evidence tell different stories to different groups of scholars, and how they align (or don’t) with the ancient knowledge held by present-day Indigenous descendants.

A picture of this history is gradually coming into focus, but there are still many unanswered questions. We will discuss how scientists are working to address these questions, but also how they are grappling with a legacy of harm that their research has caused Indigenous peoples. Genetics can be a powerful tool for understanding the past, but when used unwisely, incautiously, or unscrupulously it can perpetuate historical injustices, including colonialism, racism, and disrespect. We will examine how these themes are woven together in the field, and how scientists—many who are themselves Native American—are influencing research practices to become more ethical.

Speaker Biography:

Jennifer Raff is an anthropological geneticist and science writer. She studied molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and biological anthropology at Indiana University, earning a dual-major PhD in the Biology and Anthropology departments before doing postdoctoral research at the University of Utah, Northwestern University, and the University of Texas. She is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Affiliate Faculty with the Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Kansas, working with tribes and communities across North America to use ancient and contemporary genomes as tools for investigating historical questions. Her research focuses on the initial peopling of the Americas as well as more recent histories in the North American Arctic and mid- continent. She has written for the public on genetics, history, race, and science literacy at various places including the New York Times, The Guardian, Scientific American, and Forbes, and published an award winning, New York Times bestselling book on the initial peopling of the Americas called “Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas”. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas.