Monday, April 1, 2013

Who Are You?

One of the more intriguing things about humanity is our connectedness.  It seems unlikely, given all of the ethnic diversity we see in our lives but we all come from pretty much the same place.   Theology of all stripes has creation myths that attempt explain our origins ranging from Native American mythology such as the Iroquois story regarding the Sky Mother being the mother of all and the earth being created on the back of a giant tortoise to the more well known Genesis myth of Adam and Eve.   These stories have been advanced through the ages and depending on who you are and where you grew up, you may take one of these myths seriously and as your "belief" in our origins.  The stories are interesting, with quite a lot of drama and excitement.  But, they are just stories and while we may hold a special place in our minds for them, they are simply an unsophisticated explanation by an uneducated group of people.  It's not their fault and perhaps they were using the best tools of thought they had in the day and after all, if your mom or dad told you a story about how the world began why would you not believe that?  

Thankfully, we live in an age where science has been able to move past fable and bring us information that provides an understanding of where we came from that is both profound and incredibly important.  In recorded history, thinkers as far back as Aristotle considered how "traits" were inherited.  Many different people reflected and wrote about this for centuries but it really wasn't until a Augustinian Friar named Gregor Mendel, who was conducting experiments on pea plants began to notice a statistical constant in terms of traits inherited by the offspring of the parent plants.  He noticed that each "trait", such as color consisted of two factors inherited by the parent.  Further work by Mendel also produced a hierarchy of traits that became known as recessive and dominant traits.  Thus, the field of modern genetics were launched.  Others of course had done research on inheritance, but Mendel's theories really set the course for the field going forward.   Fast forward to the late 1940's and early 1950's and the work of Francis Crick and James Watson, who riding on the shoulders of many who came before published a paper in 1953 that would gain them the Nobel Price in 1962 for the discovery of Deoxyribonucleic acid or (DNA).  DNA was a breakthrough and it has broken through the "mystery" of understanding what we're made of and how we are all ultimately connected.  With the possible exception of the Moon Landing in 1969, the discovery of DNA and the chromosome pairs DNA contains is perhaps the most important scientific discovery of the 20th Century.

So, back to how humanity is connected.  For Christmas in 2012, my wife got me National Geographic's GENO 2.0 DNA testing kit.  The kit contains a couple of swabs and vials that one uses to deposit a DNA sample in which is then analyzed by National Geographic's testing team who will then provide a report back to you and tell you where you came from.  Cool huh?  Basically a 45 second scraping of the cheek, mail the samples in and 6-8 weeks later you get a report telling you where your ancestors came from. 

Well, I got the results of the test a couple of weeks ago and found the information incredibly interesting.  Like quite a few human males, in fact all that are alive today, my DNA maps back to a man born approximately 140,000 years ago.  Around 75,000 years ago, the BT branch of the Y-chromosome tree was born, which contained many genetic markers including one called M42 (a genetic marker is a mutation in a gene that is passed on to descendants), carried by a man who lived in a place in  eastern  Africa that comprises countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.   During this time frame, the first migrations out of Africa began and the M42 marker traveled along with them.  Over the course of the next 70 thousand or so years, this marker, along with others picked up along they way found their way to the United Kingdom, where my paternal ancestors were to eventually settle.  Over the course of the migration, my ancestors were African, Southwest Asian (Iranian, Indian), Central Asian (Kazakhs), German, Italian, Spanish and finally, English.   The name Sherrard is an Anglo-Saxon name established in the County of Cheshire in the early middle ages and are my direct anscestors who had family that immigrated to the United States.  The map below produced by the GENO 2.0 project shows the migratory path of my ancestors that contained the same genetic markers that I do.

Additionally, it seems that I, like most of all non-sub Saharan Africans contain a little does of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA. These two groups of hominids, distinctly separate from Homo Sapien, were evidently on the planet as recent as 30-40 thousand years ago, in the case of the Neanderthals, but who have since vanished as a separate species of hominid.  Once again, the idea that most of us are a mixture of difference species of the same genus is fascinating to me.  It shows me that while I am a distinct and unique individual, I came from a vast and varied set of ancestors.   That's pretty comforting to me. It gives me a sense of connection when I try and understand how people in other parts of the world think, live, love, worship and die.  It means that while we may have many things that we hold as unique to ourselves such as cultural history, nationalism, ethnic affiliation, etc., deep down we all, every one of us, come from the same place and same ancestors.

I would encourage you if you haven't to get this test done.  It's about $200.00, so it isn't cheap. However, the work the project is doing is important and a portion of the proceeds goes to continuing the research.  To date, over 500 thousand samples have been collected and the sample size is growing.   If you are interested in checking this out, go to their website at

So, who are you?  Well, you're evidently related to me in some form or fashion, so don't forget the Christmas Cards.

Understanding where we come from and who we are is important.  Today we are more connected than ever technologically.  This test shows we've always been connected biologically.  That's a pretty cool thing to think about.

Tell me what you think.



  1. Interesting stuff Dennis. I always suspected that there was a bit of Neanderthal in your background.


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