Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza

1999 Balzan Prize for the Science of Human Origins

For his comprehensive work on human evolution by integrating genetic and cultural features.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, born in 1922 in Genoa, Italy (*1922–†2018), is a geneticist of world renown.
After having taught at the universities of Parma and Pavia, he moved on to the University of Stanford, where he is currently Esteemed Professor of Genetics.

His extraordinary studies on the evolution of the human species, both from a genetic and cultural point of view, have been essential contributions to the reconstruction of humanity’s genealogical tree. Among his many publications, we must recall his ponderous work, The History and Geography of Human Genes (written with Paolo Menozzi and Alberto Piazza). Then, too, there are the brilliant volumes of scientific divulgation, among these Genes, Peoples and Languages.

Cavalli-Sforza is the world’s expert on human genetic diversity and what it tells us about the phylogenetic tree of human populations. He realised that an understanding of the evolution of mankind requires the knowledge of both genetic mechanisms and cultural, especially linguistic, features. By collecting genes from a great number of different populations and testing more than a hundred different alleles, as well as by analysing historical, demographic, linguistic, etc. data, he was able to reconstruct the origin of ancient migration, creating a model of diffusion of culture in the Neolithic Age.

In his comprehensive works, his genetic investigations of primitive populations, especially pygmies of Africa (one of the few remaining groups of hunters-gatherers), played an important role. Also, the studies of the genetic consequences of technological development, particularly the spread of agriculture from its area of origin, the Middle-East, to Europe, were exemplary. All this, in combination with archaeological data, allowed the reconstruction of a complete tree of human descent, in which genes and languages go hand in hand, demonstrating that genetic and cultural data converge in furnishing a convincing explanation of human evolution.

In summing up, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza has created a most comprehensive synthesis on the differentiation of populations by integrating various fields of research and providing convincing evidence for genetic and cultural co-evolution.

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