What did you blow your tax refund on?
This year, I spent mine on some really cool things, including a mad jaunt to attend an old friend’s birthday dinner over a thousand miles away, and participation in National Geographic’s ancestral genome tracking project.
Regarding #1, hanging around people in their late 90s of age has paradoxically made me aware of how very short life is. And what is more important than friends? Someone I’ve known since my teenage years wrote to say that what he really wanted for his big birthday coming up this year was to simply share a fine meal with his beloved friends. So I’m blowing a big part of my yearly ecological footprint budget to just go back to my hometown to be with that crowd for a long weekend – wonderfully creative, eccentric, smart and kind people I’ve known most of my life and love dearly, but now rarely get to see. This choice feels good to my heart. I’ve had to miss a lot of events recently because of the demands of caring for my aging folks. When I too am old, I don’t want to feel like I blew my chance to celebrate my people, but now it’s too late.
The rest of this post is devoted to #2, National Geographic’s genome project.
I’m adopted, so taking part in Geno 2.0 is a really big deal to me.
I only know what minimal information about my immediate ancestry was kindly written down for me at birth. I have never seen an echo of my own face in another. When someone asks something like, “where did you get your musical ability?” I can only point to nurture, not nature. That works in part for music, sure, but not for the curly hair.
For the individual, participation means you get to find out what percentage of your deep ancestry comes from various parts of the world. Is that wild hair Eastern European, Welsh, or perhaps African?
“The results give you an unprecedented view of your lineage. You will discover the migration paths your ancient ancestors followed thousands of years ago, and learn the details of your ancestral makeup—your branches on the human family tree.”
The test even includes markers for Neanderthal and Denisovan genes!
According to their materials, because Neanderthals “were still alive and well in Eurasia” when modern humans were first migrating out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago, it’s likely that if you have European ancestry, you also have some percentage of Neanderthal. That big Indo-European migration carried more than just stories about snakes.
I’d never heard of the Denisovans, who Nat’l Geographic says split from our current human lineage around 500,000 years ago. But they were there in Eurasia too. “It seems that our ancestors met, leaving a small genetic trace of these ancient relatives in our DNA.”
The way the project works is this: you capture some DNA by swabbing your cheek, and then send it in. At the lab, they test for nearly 150,000 ancestry-specific markers on your mitochondrial DNA. As this is passed down each generation from mother to child, it can “reveal your direct maternal deep ancestry.”
For males, they will also examine markers on the Y chromosome, to reveal direct paternal deep ancestry.
Being a woman, I admit I was feeling a bit bummed at not being able to learn about my biological paternal side too. But they help out with that, and thereby get their thickest data:
“In addition, for all participants, we analyze a collection of more than 130,000 other ancestry-informative markers from across your entire genome to reveal the regional affiliations of your ancestry, offering insights into your ancestors who are not on a direct maternal or paternal line.”
This provides the organization with a lot of data about the entire sweeping human story. Geno 2.0 doesn’t tell you about health, neither genetic health history nor predictions about your personal health based on same; that’s a different kind of test. This one is larger in scope, and I suppose safer in terms of potentially being used in a political or financial sense against participants.
“This is not a genealogical study, and your DNA trail may not lead to your present-day location. Rather, your results will reveal the anthropological story of your ancestors—where they lived and how they migrated around the world over tens of thousands of years. The autosomal results will reveal insights into recent admixture over the past 6 generations—for instance, if you have one parent of Asian descent and another from Western Europe, this mix will be reflected in your results.”
I think one of the greatest things about this study is the potential it holds for eliminating the silly and dangerous idea of race once and for all. At the time of this writing, nearly 600,000 people from all over the world are participating. When we see that every one of us has, say, some mixed percentage of ancestors from Asia, North America, Africa, Europe, Melanesia, Polynesia, Aboriginal Australia, South America, the Middle East, Siberia, and so on and so on… well, who’s then left as the ‘other’? Who can anyone point to to categorically hate?
A final thing that’s neat about the Geno 2.0 project is that part of the proceeds from the sales of participation kits like the one I bought goes to support community-led indigenous conservation and revitalization projects.
How much Neanderthal is in me? Stay tuned!