Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tracing your distant past

Do you ever wonder where you’ve come from? I mean, really wonder? This isn't about musing on who your great-grandparents were. It's not recent genealogy going back to the 1800s. I’m talking big-picture stuff.
I’ve become so intrigued with this question that I decided to take part in the National Geographic society’s Genographic Project. This is an enormous piece of genetic research that aims to figure out where we all came from.
It’s becoming obvious that actually, we’re all Africans. Sure we may be fair or olive-skinned and have red or blonde hair and count Scots, Irish, French, Persian, Fijian, Chinese (or whatever!) people in the ancestry we know about, but gene studies are proving that the whole world’s very first ancestors grew out of African soil.
So I sent off for a kit (it costs $US100) to find out about my own far-distant rellies. You do a couple of inside-cheek swabs with a special brush, pop the resulting DNA samples into little vials that they supply, and send the envelope off to the US. In a few weeks I’ll be able to go to the website, type in my password and get the results – which will tell me the region where my most ancient female ancestor lived and what path her descendants took, maybe 50,000 years ago, to work their nomadic way up into Europe. This is expressed in map form, with dotted lines showing your family’s ancient trail.
As a woman you can only select your female ancestors. Their X chromosomes (we don’t have a Y chromosome) have come in a long, shimmering line down to the person that is you. Men can choose to track either their male (Y) or female (X) side.
My interest in this was sparked by seeing the Lascaux Caves in the south of France – where you can see fabulous paintings of horses, bison, reindeer and all manner of mythical beasties painted on the cave walls some 18,000 years ago. Eighteen thousand years! (That's a bit of Lascaux pictured above.)
The paintings are gorgeous, full of life and vitality. They’re all the more wonderful when you consider they were daubed with basic pigments in the guttering light of primitive lamps. The paintings were hidden there for millennia until some boys stumbled on a cave entrance in 1940, went in, looked up and said “wow” (or whatever French schoolboys would have said back then).
Just before my Lascaux trip I heard about a DNA testing programme in Britain which had discovered that nearly all British people are descended from a small group of people who were bailed up in the south of France and northern Spain by the chill of the last Ice Age. I’m guessing it was some of them who filled those caves with art as they sat out the long, cold centuries.
As the climate warmed and the ice retreated, they gradually migrated further north and crossed the Channel to begin populating what we now think of as UK. Anyhow, modern-day Brits who’d thought about their roots at all had assumed they’d have some familiar label, like Anglo Saxon, Celtic, Norman or Viking. Some were a bit shocked to discover traces of African, Arab and even Mongolian genes in their blood. (That Genghis Khan guy went everywhere!)
Because I'm from basically British stock, it seemed reasonable to assume that a far-distant ancestor of mine might have been one of the artists.
I love this big-picture stuff. In a world where we keep on emphasising our differences, this research surely has to prove that in the end we are all one enormous family. And now that there are so many of us ‒ surging to nine billion by the middle of this century ‒ it’s even more important that we learn to get along together without hitting each other over the head with clubs, not to mention nuclear bombs.
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