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Using DNA To Unlock History’s Secrets

By Daniel A. Handlin, Contributing Writer

What do an astrophysicist, oceanic chemist, archaeologist, literary historian, and a paleobotanist have in common?

According to Professor of Medieval History Michael McCormick, they are all key players in the interdisciplinary cooperation needed to better our understanding of the history of humanity.

“We know more today than we did last Friday about the past. And last Friday we knew more about the past than any other human civilization that’s ever existed on the face of the earth,” McCormick said.

In his studies of medieval history and climate, he has found that this interdisciplinary approach is extremely powerful for unearthing new data, and has led to a revolution in the way medieval archaeology is done.

“We’re getting real serious answers that we couldn’t have even posed the questions two years ago,” he said.

McCormick applies these varied fields of research to problems ranging from medieval climate to the fall of the Roman Empire, in order to solve the ultimate question of our origin and heritage.

Doing “a sweep with geomagnetic sensors,” McCormick and his team were able to discover what they believe is one of Charlemagne’s estates dating from the eighth century.

“Really one of the most exciting things that is happening today is the application of the natural sciences to the problem of our human past,” he said. “Where do we come from, who are we?”

Technological and scientific advancements have resulted in a surge in discoveries in medieval archaeology, which, McCormick said, makes it an exciting field of research for him and his students.

“The inspiration for all of this of course is my undergraduate teaching, where you guys are constantly asking me impossible questions, fantastic questions,” he said.

A McCormick thesis advisee, Maurren E. Boyle ’08 affirmed McCormick’s enthusiasm for teasing out the secrets of medieval history.

“He’s the best—he’s incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging, and he’s really interested in what undergraduates have to say...he’s absolutely the reason I ended up in medieval history,” Boyle said.

For recent research, faculty profiles, and a look at the issues facing Harvard scientists, check out The Crimson's science page.

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