“We are doomed to repeat history if we fail to learn from it, but how are we affected by the forces that are invisible to us? In The Invisible History of the Human Race Christine Kenneally draws on cutting-edge research to reveal how both historical artifacts and DNA tell us where we come from and where we may be going. From fateful, ancient encounters to modern mass migrations and medical diagnoses, Kenneally explains how the forces that shaped the history of the world ultimately shape each human who inhabits it.” (christinekenneally.com)
I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t really do science. So, those of you wanting to read this book for the sciencey aspect of it and hoping I may be able to provide some insight on that, should probably stop reading now. There is no science here for you. This is mostly because I have no idea how to write about it without sounding like a fool. Instead what follows are some things I found of interest in the book and how it got me thinking about my own personal history, and how my ancestors and my DNA have worked together to shape who I am.
Last year I sent a cheek swab away as part of National Geographic’s ‘Genographic Project’. I eagerly anticipated the results that would hopefully tell me all about where my ancient ancestors came from. I knew my more recent ancestors had come to Australia from England in the mid-1800’s. I can actually trace my history all the way back to Essex in the mid-1600’s on my father’s side, and to Scotland in the mid-1600’s on my mother’s side, and then I stopped because the information available to me online dried up. So when I saw the Genographic Project I thought it would be a good opportunity to see what information I could get that goes even further back. Naturally I wasn’t expecting anything too specific, just a bit of insight would have been enough. However when I got the results back I was a bit disappointed as they seemed a little vague, and the general sort of feedback they’d send to everyone. I mean, it came as no surprise to me that my regional ancestry is 42% Northern European, knowing that my ancestors were in that area since at least the 1600’s. Also the fact that I have blonde hair and blue eyes was a bit of a giveaway. However, since reading The Invisible History of the Human Race, I’ve made a bit more sense of some of these results, and it’s actually explained a little of my personality and my family history.
The best example of this was reading about the meeting of the modern humans who left Africa around sixty thousand years ago, with Neanderthals and a newly discovered ancient species, the Denisovan. According to my own test results, my hominin ancestry is 5.1% Neanderthal, compared to the average 2.1%. That’s a lot higher than the average, and while the Genographic website explained how I have Neanderthal DNA, it didn’t explain what it meant to me as an individual. Kenneally’s book did. She says,
“Even though most non-African individuals have 1 percent to 3 percent Neanderthal DNA (I have 2.7 percent), it appears that over 60 percent of the Neanderthal genome is distributed in small pieces throughout the non-African human population. A number of teams have demonstrated that it may have helped the earliest African migrants adapt to a colder, darker climate. Some parts of the genome with a high frequency of Neanderthal variants shape hair and skin colour and likely made the first Eurasians lighter-skinned than their African ancestors. Other regions that have been influenced by the Neanderthal genome are implicated in human diseases, such as lupus, Crohn’s disease, and type 2 diabetes, and even in behaviour, such as addiction to cigarettes.” (p.254)
So, is it my high percentage of Neanderthal DNA that has given me the combination of ridiculously fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes? Although I don’t smoke, I do have a tendency to almost obsess about things until I become bored with them and move onto something new to obsess about, and there is a history of alcoholism in my family – could this also be explained by the Neanderthal DNA? It’s got me wondering what sort of results older members of my family would get if they did this test, and whether other people with physical features like me and those with an addiction would have a higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA than average. Maybe, maybe not. There is still so much about how we work and what shapes us that is yet to be discovered (and there’s also every chance I’m not even interpreting this information correctly!).
There are many other things about this book I could discuss, but if I did this post would literally be the longest blog post ever written. What I will say is that it was incredibly enlightening, interesting, and thought provoking. I learnt so many things I didn’t know before that have not only helped in explaining myself a little better, but also how I fit into the human story as a whole. I think everyone, even those like myself don’t “do science”, will find something of interest in this book. Kenneally covers just about everything – from the impact of slavery and convict transportation, to the history of genealogy and eugenics. While a fraction of the information went a little beyond the reaches of my non-scientific mind, for the most part it was incredibly easy to understand. Christine Kenneally has done a brilliant job in writing the book so that it is accessible for regular readers. If more sciencey books were written like this, I would probably read a lot more of them!
Want some further reading? Check out Shaina’s review of this book at Shaina Reads.
What about you – have you ever thought about all the different things that make you, you? Have you ever done a DNA test like the one I did, and were you surprised by the results?