My grandmother used to tell me about her Hawaiian great-grandfather, who drove long-ago tourists up to the Volcano in a horse-drawn carriage.
Back in the late 1800s, the journey from Hilo took two days, with an overnight stop to rest the horses and travelers. But once they arrived, the landscape undoubtedly looked very much as it does now.
Still an otherworldly land worth visiting, the unique Volcano area is home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes. Sprawling, huffing and erupting within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea and Mauna Loa exhibit nature’s drama in action. But while change and creation, and birth and destruction, are part of the park’s inherent nature, I can still see what my ancestors very likely saw: a moonscape in places, where ghostlike trees hold their ground as ethereal steam swirls from a landscape pocked with vents….
There’s family history and then there’s family history. I’m going deep.
I just swabbed the inside of both my cheeks, put the swabs into a vial, and stuck them in a package, ready to zip it off to National Geographic’s Genographic Project.
A short description of this project is that they are using cutting-edge DNA analysis to study how people populated the earth.
Here’s a longer one:
The Genographic Project is a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells. Dr. Wells and a team of renowned international scientists are using cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots. The three components of the project are:
• To gather and analyze research data in collaboration with indigenous and traditional peoples around the world
• To invite the general public to join this real-time scientific project and to learn about their own deep ancestry by purchasing a Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit, Geno 2.0
• To use a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 kit sales to further research and the Genographic Legacy Fund, which in turn supports community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects
The Genographic Project is anonymous, nonmedical, and nonprofit, and all results are placed in the public domain following scientific peer publication.
Soon I will receive analysis of my DNA that reveals my “deep ancestry.”
Since 2005, the Genographic Project has gathered DNA data from more than half a million people (577,000!) from more than 140 countries.
While helping scientists understand how humans populated the world, we learn more about our own family’s migration route out of Africa. I find this all fascinating.
Because really, we know so little about our histories. True, a royal family might know, what?, several hundred or a thousand years of information about its forebears. Maybe a little more? And then there are cultures like the Polynesians and others who have very strong oral traditions and can tell the story of their people going extraordinarily far back in time. Which I also find fascinating, by the way.
But most people don’t know the story of their ancestors over the last 60,000 years. Harper’s magazine once estimated there have been 7,500 generations of people since the first Homo sapiens. Once many of those people left Africa, which way did they go, where did they settle along the way, and what brought us here?
Most people, groups, cultures, just do not hold on to that kind of information over that period of time! But it turns out our cheeks do.
For a woman, the Genographic Project analyzes thousands of genetic markers on her mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down each generation from mother to child.
But that would tell only part of my story, so guess what my brother got for Christmas?
I got him his very own Geno 2.0 kit, and he swabbed his cheeks today too. Since his DNA includes the Y chromosome passed down from father to son, his results will tell us about the paternal side of our ancestral migration story.
Everyone’s DNA is analyzed for more than 130,000 other markers, too, which reveal “regional affiliations” of your ancestry (“insights into your ancestors not on a direct maternal or paternal line”).
Including — how interesting in this — our hominid cousins the Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans. As we modern humans were first migrating out of Africa, more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still living in Eurasia, and we (okay, “scientists”) now know that they met and mingled. Most non-Africans, according to the Genographic Project, are about 2.5 percent Neanderthal. Anyone with solely sub-Saharan African ancestors is not, because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia.
Have you done DNA analysis, whether with this sort of migration study or one of the ancestry ones, like Genetic Genealogy or 23andme? I’m really interested in that, too, and you know I will probably end up doing one of those someday, too.
Please comment below if you have participated in any of these DNA studies and tell us about it. Which project? How did you choose? What did you find out? I’d love to hear.
On Facebook a couple weeks ago, I saw an ad for the book Reunion by Ryan Littrell. Its subtitle is “A Search for Ancestors,” and it definitely caught my eye. (Isn’t Facebook good at targeting its ads!)
I read about the book and then impulse-ordered it.
Turns out it’s a good book. I’m glad I did.
I was hooked early on by this passage about looking at a photograph of two nineteenth-century ancestors; this passage almost could have been pulled out of my own head. I think about things like this. Do you?
You can’t see in their eyes what you see in a friend who trades a knowing glance with you, because these ancestors never had the chance to know you, and so they never spoke of you, they never cared about you. What would they have thought of you if they were around today? Would they invite you in, like you were some long lost grandchild of theirs, or would they be polite and distant, the way they might treat a strange new acquaintance?
Each of us could ask these questions, but we know that there can be no response. We were never given the chance to know all the ways he would look after us, or how she would smile at us, or how they might have spoken of us, even when it was just the two of them. Our ancestors are never going to return our calls.
But spookily, they’re here. Their DNA is our DNA, in us right now, influencing everything our bodies and minds do….
I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about – or is currently researching, or ever has or will research – his or her family’s genealogy. Littrell brings the reader along as he researches, travels, meets distant cousins and uncovers the history of his family. It’s a great look at, and example of, how to do good genealogical research, and it tells an interesting story, as well.
He includes some Scottish Highlands and clan history. This book will be of special interest to anyone who traces their roots to the Scottish Highlands, and to people descended from McDonalds/MacDonalds or McDaniels/MacDaniels. Though neither of those categories apply to me, and I totally enjoyed it, too.
Where do I come from? That question sets Ryan Littrell on a journey that crosses centuries and many miles. An anonymous letter, found at the bottom of a box of black-and-white pictures, reveals the first clues about his grandmother’s family story, and soon those clues lead him to a country graveyard and a long-lost cousin. Then faded names in old books, along with a DNA surprise, unearth one more generation, and yet another. And as one hint leads to the next, from the 19th century back into the 18th, he discovers his family’s place in a people’s tragic struggle-a tale of heartbreak, betrayal, and unfailing strength. A real-life account, Reunion shows how our ancestors just might still be a part of us, and how our story began long before we were even born.
In that interview he discusses one part of his story that I find especially interesting: How he used DNA testing, our newest tool in the genealogy arsenal:
Q. What was your most surprising discovery related to this project?
A. That’s a tough question, because there were so many discoveries along the way. But if I had to pick one, it would be that email revealing my uncle’s DNA results: Each person who matched my uncle’s DNA was descended from a single family that lived for many generations in one particular spot in the Scottish Highlands. My whole life, I’d had no clue where this part of my family had come from. But suddenly, with one cheek swab from Uncle Chuck, we knew the truth.