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New foundation professor uses genetic traces to document ancient migration

Monday, March 30, 2015

LAWRENCE — An expert in the migration and settlement of the Americas will return to the University of Kansas as a Foundation Distinguished Professor. 

Dennis O’Rourke, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, is considered one of the foremost experts in the United States for the use of ancient DNA to reconstruct human settlement in the Americas. O’Rourke, a KU alumnus, will join the Department of Anthropology in January 2016. O’Rourke is one of five Foundation Distinguished Professors to be announced this year and one of 12 overall.

“Professor O’Rourke’s skill in ancient and modern genetics will help elevate KU’s international reputation in anthropology and migration studies,” said Jeffrey S. Vitter, provost and executive vice chancellor. “I anticipate Dennis’s scholarly work will span across disciplines for new efforts not only in his department, but also in molecular genetics, biology and more. His talents will bring deeper understanding and further possibilities for two of KU’s strategic initiatives: harnessing information and building communities.”

O’Rourke’s work to document genetic diversity of ancient and modern populations in the North American arctic has provided a new view of migration and colonization events. He also is considered a pioneer in improving the method to eliminate contamination of ancient samples with modern DNA. With the support and approval of local indigenous communities, his efforts have successfully characterized DNA variation in remains of native populations from the southwest United States, the Aleutian Archipelago and the northern slope of Alaska. Through the course of his career, he has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation. His research has helped tell the story of the migration of ancient Eskimo and Aleut populations from Siberia to the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

He is co-editor of two books, “Human Biology: An Evolutionary and Biocultural Perspective” and “Genetics, Evolution and Disease.” He has written more than 40 journal articles that have appeared in international publications including Science, Current Biology and Evolution. He’s also produced numerous book chapters and book reviews. He was editor-in-chief of the journal Human Biology and an associate editor for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 

O’Rourke is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a member of several professional organizations and has held leadership roles in both the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the American Association of Anthropological Genetics. Since 2013, he has been a member of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee of the National Park Service.  

Jane Gibson, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, said O’Rourke will bring enhanced visibility to KU.

“The addition of Professor O’Rourke to the faculty will make KU’s Department of Anthropology a leader in molecular anthropology, particularly in studies of ancient DNA,” she said.

O’Rourke has been with the University of Utah since 1978 with the exception of two years as program director for physical anthropology at the National Science Foundation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from KU in 1973. He also has a master of arts, a master of philosophy and a doctorate from KU, all in anthropology.

KU’s Foundation Distinguished Professor initiative is a unique partnership between the university and the state of Kansas to attract eminent faculty members to support one or more of the university’s four strategic initiative themes.


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