SCIENTISTS don't bother much with the past these days; nor, if it comes to that, do a lot of people who know nothing about science. Yet there are always lessons for the wise in lives gone by, and, for the past three years, a team of Western scientists has been trying to learn some thoroughly modern ones from the long-lost history of the world's most ancient international thoroughfare: the Silk Road.
Tens of thousands of traders travelled the weary route between China and Syria from the 1st century BC until the mid-14th century. Their goods, indeed they themselves, came from every corner of the known world: from India, Arabia, Siberia, Britain and the Baltic. The obstacles they faced - language, danger, physical hard- ship - hardly bear thinking about. Yet somehow they surmounted them so that their caravans of horses or of Bactrian camels could carry glass, tin, lead, coral, pottery and gold from the West; and incense, silk, muslin and spices from the East.
None of these traders, needless to say, had the faintest conception of the science that informs even the most basic modern worldview. But in other respects, they weren't so far removed from their 20th-century descendants. Like us, they were insatiable exchangers of ideas and information: the Silk Road has been referred to as "the Internet of its day", and without it modern civilisation could never have been born. They knew peace and war. From time to time they would witness, as we do today, a perplexing upheaval whereby a whole people migrates, willingly or not, from its ancestral land. They worked and bred and died. And, of course, they were created from the universal human blueprint of DNA, exactly like us. Well, almost exactly. And that's where the scientists come in. The "Eurasia 98" project, from which these photographs were taken, has been the most ambitious undertaking in one of the world's newest scientific fields: genetic anthropology. Also known as molecular anthropology, this hybrid science is a kind of human archaeology, examining and comparing sequences of human DNA in order to find clues to ancient history. Dr Spencer Wells, a 30-year-old research fellow at the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford, is a pioneer of the method, and Eurasia 98 his most intriguing achievement. For five months of last year, Dr Wells (who was then attached to Stanford University in Massachusetts) led his team - from Stanford, Oxford, the University of California at Berkeley and the Uzbek Academy of Sciences - in the footsteps of the ancient silk traders, taking blood samples en route from some of the world's most ancient and least accessible peoples. The object was to trace their origins. The team focused particularly on the middle section of the Silk Road, in the Caucasus, Central Asia and southern Siberia, between the steppes of European Russia and the Altai bordering Mongolia. More conquests and migrations have originated in these parts than almost anywhere else in the world. Scythians, Mongols, Parthians, Tartars, Turks, Persians, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kirgizs, Azeris, Kurds, Turkmens, Armenians - these are just a few of the peoples (many of them nomadic) who have held sway over these lands. There is barely a page in Western history that does not bear some trace - whether cultural or biological - of their influence. But despite the fact that these peoples now have descendants all over the world, there remain many groups at the heart of the Eurasian land mass - of, for example, Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Turkmens - which retain what some would refer to as "ethnic purity". These are pockets of people who have lived in the same place for centuries and who have jealously guarded their language, custom and collective sense of self. For geneticists interested in ethnogenesis - the origins of racial groups - these conditions offer a fascinating range of possible lines of inquiry. On the one hand, DNA sampling for "pure" Tajiks - or Uzbeks, or Turkmens - will enable scientists to determine whether such groupings do indeed have distinct genetic profiles of their own. …