National Geographic's Genographic Project is helping people to trace their family tree back 60,000 years to the Neanderthals
The cutting edge test, which covers "deep ancestry", is serving breath-taking personal information on a petri-dish platter
Wednesday 14 May 2014
I have just received results of a test that traced back my genome 67,000 years. The cutting edge test has jangled my identity, serving me breath-taking personal information on a petri-dish platter. The test covers "deep ancestry", and though it just takes a few seconds to conduct the cheek swab, the results take months, as a technology called single nucleotide polymorphism uses arrays on computer chips to probe for 150,000 different mutations.
These mutations are little mistakes that happen in the genetic story, passed down over thousands of years until entire populations of one area carry the same mistakes, or markers, in their genome.
The markers of one group are different from the mistakes of another group and geneticists can follow these "breadcrumbs", as National Geographic's Genographic Project director Spencer Wells puts it, across great swaths, not only of time, but of place, as well.
Finding out that two per cent of my genome is African was exciting. It's one thing to know intellectually that the human race originated in Africa; it's quite another to learn that the African legacy is expressed in my very own genome. Now it's not just that all humans originated in Africa – it's me that originated there. What of my personality, mind and temperament is encoded in my African genes? Although the Genographic Project is quick to point out that these results aren't about race, it does turn the notion on its topsy-turvy head. The Project should consider giving people like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy a kit, even sparing them the $200 (£120) fee. It would be great to see white supremacists who had received their results reel on the chat groups.
Unfortunately, that group is unlikely to believe the results of a genetics test.
But there was a result even more interesting than my African heritage. About 1.1 per cent of my genome is Neanderthal. The Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo, who first discovered in 2010 that the human genome contains Neanderthal genome, was so shaken by the results that he repeated the tests many times until the truth couldn't be denied: modern humans who migrated from Africa 60,000 years ago must have mated with the Neanderthals who populated south-western Europe.
And the one to four percentage of the Neanderthal genes (the Africans who never left their continent have no Neanderthal DNA) in Europeans and Asians does not come from the rare hook-up. Mating between the two human species occurred on a regular basis, over the thousands of years they cohabitated.
That's not quite as icky as it sounds. Anthropologists are revisiting the old archaeological evidence and drawing a more advanced profile of Neanderthals than they had when they considered them not too far above the apes. In unravelling the Neanderthal genome, Dr Pääbo found one of the genes for language, and Robert G Franciscus, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Iowa, did a 3D CT-based reconstruction of Neanderthal vocal tract anatomy, to gain a sense of how the males would have sounded when they talked (with surprisingly shrill, high voices for such macho-looking men). It now appears that the Neanderthals took care of their handicapped, buried their dead with rudimentary ritual and decorated themselves with body paint, manufactured pitch to hold their spear points to their spear shafts and used a sophisticated method to engineer tools.
But even with all these laudable attributes, Neanderthal culture paled compared to that of modern humans who came out of Africa. Even with their big brains, the Neanderthals, anthropologists believe, suffered from a lack of imagination. Their minimalist culture remained mind-numbingly stagnant for most of the 170,000 years they inhabited Europe. It received a boost from their interaction with the Africans. And then they disappeared.
The disappearance of Neanderthals has mystified anthropologists. They had postulated that the modern humans killed them off or that climate change thinned out the dense forests to open plains where they were ill-accustomed to hunt. But the recent evidence of their interbreeding with humans indicates they just eventually got absorbed into the modern human population. Where did they disappear to? They disappeared within us.
I'm also – according to the results of my Geno kit – 0.1 Denisovan. That's a brand-new species of archaic humans discovered in 2008 in a cave in southern Siberia in the form of the 40,000-year-old little finger of a young girl. Dr Pääbo has extracted nuclear DNA out of it which suggests the girl had brown hair, eyes and skin. The Denisovan genome has me, to my surprise, related to present-day east Asians.
A woman taking part in the project has a cheek swab for DNA testing (National Geographic)
In the excitement of learning about my deep ancestry, though, lurked a fear: despite the Genographic Project's guarantee of confidentiality, it's disconcerting to have my genetic information in the hands of some magazine. (The Genographic Project is National Geographic's project.) Let's put it this way: I hope that there's at least one Denisovian on the National Geographic board of directors. If not, next time I fill out a website survey, I won't hit "No Thanks" next to the offer of the National Geographic subscription. For added assurance, I'll even order National Geographic 's Scottish Thistle walking stick. And if that's not good enough, there's always the Expedition Field Jacket. All I ask is that when National Geographic sells its mailing lists, it doesn't accidentally sell my full genetic profile along with it.
I should really be more worried about Google. To protect my privacy, I'm not mentioning my genetic results in Gmail. I'm loath to see what personalised ads appear after I type, "LOL, I'm a Neanderthal!" or "It's awesome! I'm a Denisovian!"
But despite the fun of being able to tell family members that I knew all along they were Neanderthals, the legacy of that species is not a LOL matter. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their immune systems, part of which now comprise our own. This hardy group that withstood the Ice Age developed an immune system that was as robust as their broad, squat, muscular bodies and it was interbreeding with them for 30,000 to 50,000 years that bolstered the Africans' immune system to withstand the onslaught of the diseases of northern climates.
Along with my genetic results, the Genome Project gave me a map that traces my ancestors' journeys. My L3 ancestors were the first modern humans to have left Africa. My original mother, L3, who is also the mother of all women outside of Africa, lived on the river Bor on the Nile River in South Sudan. She is the ur-mother, a so-called mitochondrial Eve. This is extraordinary to ponder: that one woman was the ancestor of billions of people. One can't help but wonder, would she be proud?
L3's descendants gave rise to two groups, with one of them being my ancestors' Haplogroup N, which migrated north from the South Sudan, following the Nile basin and leaving the African continent across the Sinai Peninsula, in what is present-day Egypt. Their descendants first lived in the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia, where they had families with Neanderthals. This is where my ancestors picked up the Neanderthal DNA that is showing up in my genome.
Jumping ahead to my lineage called haplogroup pre-HV: while some descendants of pre-HV moved out across Central Asia, the Indus Valley, and even back into Africa, my ancestors remained in the Middle East, forming a new group called haplogroup HV. To my initial disappointment, about 15,000 years separates my ancestors in the region where Abraham would have been when he founded Judaism. By the time he was there, my ancestors of haplogroup N were long gone, having followed enormous herds of migrating game into the uninhabited territories west to populate Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, and to Central Asia and the Indus Valley of Pakistan and India.
My physical ancestors aren't my spiritual ancestors. The timing suggests that my ancestors converted to Judaism after they were already in Europe or Asia, probably via marriage to someone who came from the Middle East in a later migration. Learning my genetic story has not just given me a new racial identity, but handed me a major soul shift on its petri-dish platter, as well.
It's humbling to think of all the people wandering so far over such imposing topographies in such difficult climates towards their future – towards my present. The vision of long treks out of Africa, through Egypt, across to Caanan and then up to Europe staggers the mind. My imagination bumps up against; is stymied by the incredibly long passage of time, the greatness of territories traversed, the thousands of never-known people it took to reach the enormous, varied, interrelated world population.
I simply can't imagine it. But perhaps that's the Neanderthal in me.
A version of this article appeared in 'Newsweek'
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