School students who may wonder about their teachers' origins may soon have an answer.

University of Otago biological anthropologist Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith and the Biology Educators' Association, through the Allan Wilson at Otago research group, have devised a novel way of teaching secondary school students about the evolution and migration of modern humans, using DNA tests.

About 250 New Zealand science and social science teachers are being given the opportunity to send samples of their own DNA to the National Geographic Genographic Laboratory in the United States.

They can then use those results, along with video presentations by Matisoo-Smith and written resources, to teach the current understanding of human evolution.


"The aim of the project is to inspire young high school students with the amazing story of our shared maternal ancestor in Africa and how a small band of humans left Africa 60,000 years ago, spread across the entire world, and finally travelled here to Aotearoa New Zealand - the longest and most dangerous leg of the human journey," she said.

"The stories of our origins and different journeys are preserved in our DNA."

As part of the teaching module - funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Unlocking Curious Minds programme - students will video each other recounting what they know about their family history.

Some of these videos will be uploaded to a public site.

The message to students is that everyone's story is interesting and important, Matisoo-Smith said.

The DNA kits - which cost about US$200 each - are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with a limit of one per school.

Matisoo-Smith, Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon and former Governors General Sir Jerry Mateparae and Sir Anand Satyanand have made their own DNA results available for study by teachers who are unable to obtain a kit to generate their own results.

During the past three years, Matisoo-Smith has sampled the DNA of more than 2000 New Zealanders to determine their ancient origins.


Her group is working with the National Geographic Genographic Project to add the Pacific expansion to the global picture of human dispersal out of Africa.

"The Pacific is such an incredibly exciting place to work.

"We've got settlement representing some of the first human dispersals out of Africa, with the initial settlement of Australia and New Guinea some 45,000 to 50,000 years ago, and we've also got the last major human dispersal which was the settlement of Polynesia, extending all the way to South America.

"So it's a wonderful place to be studying humans and human adaptations."