Luigi “Luca” Cavalli-Sforza died peacefully, at age 96, on August 31st in Belluno, Italy, surrounded by his family. His contributions to Science were those of a pioneer. In human genetics his trademark was that of a multidisciplinary, quantitative approach, elegantly interconnecting population genetics with a highly diverse set of disciplines, ranging from linguistics to archeology. He taught Genetics at the University of Parma and Pavia, Northern Italy, and from 1971 was Professor at Stanford University (California) until his retirement.
Cavalli-Sforza was born in Genoa, graduated in Medicine and Surgery in Pavia but switched to basic science very early on, to study the transmission of hereditary characters under the guidance of Adriano Buzzati-Traverso, the founding father of genetics research in Italy. At the end of the war he moved to Cambridge University where he became assistant of Sir Ronald Fisher, leading statistician of the twentieth century. After his highly successful time in Cambridge, Cavalli-Sforza returned to Italy. Teaching Genetics and Statistics, first in Pavia then in Parma, he started a very original research project: by performing blood testing as well as accessing local church records, he studied the frequency of consanguineous marriages, estimated inbreeding and addressed the relationship between consanguinity and random genetic drift. He demonstrated, for the first time, the importance of chance in the transmission of hereditary traits in the face of natural selection, until then considered the main driving factor in evolution.
In the early sixties, Cavalli-Sforza, for the first time, applied mathematical methods to the reconstruction of human evolution by using genetic data available globally, mainly blood groups and proteins, a quantitative approach not seen before; in collaboration with another pupil of Fisher, Anthony Edwards, he created the first genetic tree of humankind and with Sir Walter Bodmer founded a new discipline, “the genetics of human populations”. With his colleagues Alberto Piazza, from Turin, and Paolo Menozzi from Parma, he published in 1997 the landmark textbook “The History and Geography of Human Genes”, illustrating in detail (the best possible at the time) the genetic diversity and history of humankind. With linguists Joseph Greenberg, Merritt Ruhlen and Bill Wang he worked on the evolution of language, the backbone of human culture.
In the early 90s, along with several other colleagues, he conceived and led the “Human Genome Diversity Project” (HGDP) with the purpose of making global genetic data from about fifty aboriginal populations publicly available to the scientific community. In the early 2000s Luca and his Stanford research team reconstructed the genetic history of the Y chromosome, up to a virtual “Adam Y”, the ancestor of all males. His last contribution, published ten years ago, showed the continuous loss of genetic diversity from East Africa to the Pacific islands, thus confirming the common African ancestry of H. sapiens and a migration process from Africa paced by settlements and local founder effects.
Cavalli-Sforza was a Renaissance man, a great scholar, an independent thinker not afraid of heterodoxy, a giant on whose shoulders we are privileged to stand. He has died but his extraordinary intellectual legacy will live on.
Written by Giorgio Sirugo, largely based on text originally written in Italian by Francesco Cavalli-Sforza