Remembering Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, pioneer in population genetics

Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a pioneer in using genetic information to help trace human evolution, history and patterns of migration, passed away on August 31 at the age of 96. Hailed as a breakthrough in the understanding of human evolution, his book, The History and Geography of Human Genes offers the first full-scale reconstruction of where human populations originated and the paths by which they spread throughout the world. It remains among the most influential of all PUP publications; American Journal of Human Biology called it “A crowning achievement, a compendium of a career’s work, and a sourcebook for years to come. . . . a landmark publication, a standard by which work in this field must be judged in the future.”

From the New York Times:

Millions of people in recent years have sent off samples of their saliva to DNA-testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com hoping to find out where their forebears came from and whether they have mystery relatives in some distant land, or even around the corner.

The trend itself can be traced to an Italian physician and geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, who died on Aug. 31 at his home in Belluno, Italy, at 96. He laid the foundation for such testing, having honed his skills more than 60 years ago using blood types and 300 years of church records to study heredity in the villagers of his own country.

Dr. Cavalli-Sforza was a pioneer in using genetic information to help trace human evolution, history and patterns of migration. The founder of a field that he called genetic geography, he was renowned for synthesizing information from diverse disciplines — genetics, archaeology, linguistics, anthropology and statistics — to explain how human populations fanned out over the earth from their original home in Africa.

Stanford Medicine News Center chronicles Cavalli-Sforza’s work creating the field of genetic geography, which, according to Jarad Diamond, “demolish[ed] scientists’ attempts to classify human populations into races in the same way that they classify birds and other species into races.”

He is survived by his sons Matteo, Francesco and Luca Tommaso Cavalli-Sforza, and by his daughter Violetta Cavalli-Sforza.