L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza was born on January 25,1922, in Genoa, Italy, and is variously referred to as a pioneering population geneticist, the founder of genetic anthropology, the person who brought together modern genetics, archaeology, linguistics, and history, and one of the most distinguished geneticists in the world. He received an MD degree from the University of Pavia in 1944; went to Cambridge University for a few years, where he studied bacterial genetics; returned to Italy in 1950, where he served as director or chair of several genetic research positions; and in 1970 was appointed professor of genetics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He retired in 1992 but is a professor emeritus at Stanford, is the principal investigator at Stanford’s Human Population Genetics Laboratory, and was a founder of the Human Genome Diversity Project, which seeks to collect a genetic database for medical purposes from throughout the world, especially from indigenous groups, which are relatively unmixed genetically. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and is a foreign member of Britain’s most prestigious scientific organization, the Royal Society.
As early as the late 1940s and early 1950s, he was the first geneticist to suggest that genes of contemporary populations could be analyzed to obtain a historical record of humans. At first, he analyzed human blood groups, but then, as genetic research advanced, he changed to DNA for his analyses.
He introduced the methodology of studying gene frequencies in different locations to show the historical migrations of peoples throughout the world. He disagreed with archaeologists and cultural anthropologists who focused only on culture but emphasized that archaeology and the spread of agriculture were in agreement with migration patterns suggested by the analysis of gene distributions. He strongly supports a multidisciplinary approach and has analyzed the degree of relationship between genetic diversity and linguistic diversity. He argued for demic diffusion, that people with advanced knowledge introduced their knowledge and their subsequent reproductive success into an area via migration.
The African origins of modern humans, the migrations out of Africa that populated the world, the dates and locations that go with all major world migrations, and the contemporary distribution of genes in the world have all benefited tremendously from Cavalli-Sforza’s genetic maps, genetic distance charts, and other publications. Nearly every recent book on human origins, evolution, or migration is based partly on Cavalli-Sforza’s research.
Cavalli-Sforza has authored or coauthored a number of books, including The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), a 1,000-page atlas of migrations and genetic diversity throughout the world. The Great Human Diasporas: The History and Diversity of Evolution (1995), written for the nonspecialist, summarizes the lifework of Cavalli-Sforza and uses genetic data to construct a tree of all human populations. Genes, Peoples, and Languages (2000) summarizes Cavalli-Sforza’s lifetime work and shows how he has synthesized genetic, linguistic, and archaeological data. Consanquinity, Inbreeding, and Genetic Drift in Italy (2004) is based on a team project that Cavalli-Sforza began in 1951 and shows the results of a massive study of 8,000 communities in Italy on topics specified in the title. Other books also have furthered genetic knowledge.
- Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (2000). Genes, peoples, and languages. New York: North Point Press.
- Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., & Cavalli-Sforza, F. (1995). The great human diasporas: The history of diversity and evolution. Reading, PA: Addison-Wesley.
- Stone, L., &. Lurquin, P. F. (2005). A genetic and cultural odyssey: The life and work ofL. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. New York: Columbia University Press.