Four years ago, I began an e-mail correspondence with a man named Claude who lives in a tiny town in New Brunswick Canada, who was helping my family fill in the gaps of our family tree, a planned 50th anniversary present for my parents. He was an enthusiastic man who worked for a genealogical research organization, and could boast more than 200,000 names on his database. We were simply looking for more information about my maternal grandmother, who was born in Bathurst, spent some of her time in a Canadian orphanage before running away, working for a candy factory to feed herself, presumably, and ultimately marrying my grandfather. They relocated to Connecticut in 1926.
My grandmother was an earthy woman, who loved to tell tales about her background. She spoke Canadian French with her omnipresent sister whenever she needed to share a story with her, but not necessarily her other anglophone companions. “Ouay, Ouay…” was about the only thing I understood, which she would quack in agreement while nodding her red, bobby pinned bun at her sister. Some of her stories, the ones she decided to share with we English speakers, were far-fetched, but I loved them all the same. My mother warned me to take them with a grain of salt, as Grandma herself was now far removed from her Canadian roots.
One story left my imagination running overtime: that somewhere, there existed a real Indian, a princess perhaps, that was a direct descendant of her father, my great Grandfather William, who was not well received by his in laws. He was also, incidentally, the man who sent his daughters to a convent / orphanage to live after his wife’s untimely death, as Victorian gentlemen did not live alone with those of the female persuasion unless a spouse, wether they were blood relatives or not. A peculiar arrangement, it always seemed to me, regardless of the tragic circumstances. I always wondered if it really was the will of his parents-in-law, who never really welcomed William into their fold.
It came as no shock, particularly, to learn from my e-mail correspondent that indeed, William is the direct descendent of a first contact relationship between a French settler and a Mi’kmaq Indian woman, who had a baby boy in 1655. Claude shed some of light on the pair, citing that 90 – 95% of Eastern Canadian peoples are of aboriginal descent, but to me it just felt special: to be connected to our history in such a way. People have for 60,000 years grown more diverse, but in the new ages of exploration and information have begun to come together again. Hundreds of years later, we see continued intermingling of the races that remind us that we are all of the same tribe.
Spencer Wells, a geneticist and anthrolopologist best known for his present day work on the Genographic Project, is dedicating most of his time on a comprehensive study on how we became more diverse as a peoples. The answer is simple and biblical, practically: that 2000 generations, or 60,000 years ago, we all lived in the eastern half of Africa. We can all trace our ancestry to a woman he calls “Mitochondrial Eve”, a name he bases on matrilineal genetic theory: the DNA that is passed from our mothers. There also exists a “Chromosomal Adam”, who is responsible for patrilineal genetics. Each of these individuals lived in Africa, and to them all people can be genetically traced.
The astounding fact is ironically one that somehow we already know in our hearts to be true: we are all related. We all come from the same tribe, but more than that: all humans are 99.9% genetically identical. The .01% of what makes us different is what Spencer Wells is studying: why, when we decided to leave Africa, which was drying out to dessert during the worst part of the last ice age 60,000 ears ago, we started to change slightly. The gorgeous, Darwinian answer: we adapted. Our DNA started to change slightly so that we would survive: what makes us different now is what once allowed us to carry on.
Another glorious fact with which Wells enlightens us: at about the same time, the human race was in grave danger of dying out completely. Never before have we been closer to extinction than 60,000 years ago, but at that time anthropologists noticed a switch in carbon-dated artifacts. Blunt tools started to give way to something entirely more interesting: art. The human brain clearly began to mature and grow more adaptable, and seemingly began to try to transcend Truth by the sculpting of beautiful objects. It seemed to be a sort of Ice Age Enlightenment and their art, indirectly, saved their lives.
The artistic hunters and gatherers left Africa to follow the fertile grasslands. Paleolithic wanderings brought humans to Asia minor, and eventually to Europe. Languages became more complex and social activity increased. The human race was saved by their wanderings, and the product is a delicious diversity of peoples who today speak more than 6,000 languages.
I have often pondered the popularity of our research into our own families. We are not necessarily who we were, but autonomous beings with individual thoughts and existences. Perhaps history is a whole lot more interesting with a personal connection. But if we were all to go back 2000 generations ago, we’d find the same Chromosomal Adam staring at us in an imaginary family portrait.
Claude, incidentally, turns out to be my 5th cousin, and now charmingly signs his e-mails “byebye Christine de 5ème Cousin Claude” in his meticulous franglais. Yes. We are all related, although some relationships are easier to decipher: the documented ones. A swab of DNA is all that is required to show your own map and how it connects to that of your neighbor, and ultimately, to Mitochondrial Eve and Chromosomal Adam. So, welcome to the family, All, near and far. A virtual family reunion is here:
For more information about Spencer Wells or to participate in The Genographic Project, one of the most comprehensive scientific studies ever, please see The National Geographic Website.
Also attached is a clip from the National Geographic Channel, with a quick interview with Wells, and ironically narrated by Kevin Bacon. Apparently the Six Degrees Project recently got rather incestuous, as Kevin has learned that he is married to his own fifth cousin, Kyra Sedgewick.