For as long as I can remember, the background of my father’s side of the family has been a bit of a mystery. There’s not much to go on in terms of family traditions, and we have only a very fragmentary family tree to work with. I guess that since many of my ancestors are at least reputed to have been “dirt farmers,” they were too busy eking out a sparse living to keep decent records of their ancestry.
We have reason to believe that somewhere in the late 1600’s / early 1700’s, my father’s ancestors came across the pond from somewhere in the British isles, and that the family name seems to have a fair amount of history behind it. But various sources (references both online & offline, “Your Family Name” booths at fairs and the like) have given us a variety of stories for the ultimate source of the surname. Some sources say it’s an old term of respect for a village elder; others that it’s a mangled version of an Old English term for a local landmark, and so forth.
So the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project really got my attention (it’s been going since 2005, but somehow I only noticed it this summer). In short, it’s an effort to get a handle on how various haplogroups, or populations with slight mutations in genetic structure have propagated through human history. In other words, to study human migration and population genetics by collecting DNA from people around the world.
The project works by asking people to collect and send in some of their own DNA, which is then tested for a variety of markers and compared to the DNA of indigenous populations with relatively well-known histories. To avoid all the problems introduced by the intermingling of DNA that’s part and parcel of parentage, the testing works on either of the two pieces of DNA which are passed down without interference — your mitochondrial DNA (which you inherit from your direct maternal ancestry), and for men, the Y-chromosome (which is inherited from your direct paternal ancestry).
So for the cost of about $100, you get some swabs to scrub the inside of your cheeks, which you then send off to a lab in a padded envelope. About two months later, you’ll find where and how one thread in your family tapestry traipsed through history. As you may have guessed by now, I opted for the Y-chromosome test, to get an idea of where my father’s father’s father’s… line went over time.
I should have suspected what they would tell me. Our family has a long history of mobility — according to the bits of family tree that we do have documentation for, each of my ancestors’ generations has settled hundreds of miles from their parents since we crossed the Atlantic 300 or 400 years ago. Meanwhile, most of the men on my father’s side of the family (at least in recent generations) seem to have been quite a bit taller than their peers. Then too, there have been the mysterious blondes being born to dark-haired parents. But leave it to my new friends at National Geographic to settle things once and for all.
In scientific terms, my Y chromosome lands me squarely in haplogroup I. This is apparently quite common in Scandinavia (and some isolated spots in the Balkans), but far less common in other parts of northern and western Europe. According to an article in Wikipedia, haplogroup I ultimately derives from what it calls “northern barbarians.” The haplogroup apparently was introduced into the British isles by way of Viking raids in the years after the Romans sailed home.
The resulting path of my deep ancestry looks like this:
So here’s what the genographic folks have to say, step-by-step, using three markers on my Y-chromosome.
M168: Your Earliest Ancestor
Time of Emergence: Roughly 50,000 years ago
Place of Origin: Africa
Climate: Temporary retreat of Ice Age; Africa moves from drought to warmer temperatures and moister conditions
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Approximately 10,000
Tools and Skills: Stone tools; earliest evidence of art and advanced conceptual skills
Skeletal and archaeological evidence suggest that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and began moving out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world around 60,000 years ago.
The man who gave rise to the first genetic marker in your lineage probably lived in northeast Africa in the region of the Rift Valley, perhaps in present-day Ethiopia, Kenya, or Tanzania, some 31,000 to 79,000 years ago. Scientists put the most likely date for when he lived at around 50,000 years ago. His descendants became the only lineage to survive outside of Africa, making him the common ancestor of every non-African man living today.
But why would man have first ventured out of the familiar African hunting grounds and into unexplored lands? It is likely that a fluctuation in climate may have provided the impetus for your ancestors’ exodus out of Africa.
The African ice age was characterized by drought rather than by cold. It was around 50,000 years ago that the ice sheets of northern Europe began to melt, introducing a period of warmer temperatures and moister climate in Africa. Parts of the inhospitable Sahara briefly became habitable. As the drought-ridden desert changed to a savanna, the animals hunted by your ancestors expanded their range and began moving through the newly emerging green corridor of grasslands. Your nomadic ancestors followed the good weather and the animals they hunted, although the exact route they followed remains to be determined.
In addition to a favorable change in climate, around this same time there was a great leap forward in modern humans’ intellectual capacity. Many scientists believe that the emergence of language gave us a huge advantage over other early human species. Improved tools and weapons, the ability to plan ahead and cooperate with one another, and an increased capacity to exploit resources in ways we hadn’t been able to earlier, all allowed modern humans to rapidly migrate to new territories, exploit new resources, and replace other hominids.
M89: Moving Through the Middle East
Time of Emergence: 45,000 years ago
Place: Northern Africa or the Middle East
Climate: Middle East: Semiarid grass plains
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Tens of thousands
Tools and Skills: Stone, ivory, wood tools
The next male ancestor in your ancestral lineage is the man who gave rise to M89, a marker found in 90 to 95 percent of all non-Africans. This man was born around 45,000 years ago in northern Africa or the Middle East.
The first people to leave Africa likely followed a coastal route that eventually ended in Australia. Your ancestors followed the expanding grasslands and plentiful game to the Middle East and beyond, and were part of the second great wave of migration out of Africa.
Beginning about 40,000 years ago, the climate shifted once again and became colder and more arid. Drought hit Africa and the grasslands reverted to desert, and for the next 20,000 years, the Saharan Gateway was effectively closed. With the desert impassable, your ancestors had two options: remain in the Middle East, or move on. Retreat back to the home continent was not an option.
While many of the descendants of M89 remained in the Middle East, others continued to follow the great herds of buffalo, antelope, woolly mammoths, and other game through what is now modern-day Iran to the vast steppes of Central Asia.
These semiarid grass-covered plains formed an ancient “superhighway” stretching from eastern France to Korea. Your ancestors, having migrated north out of Africa into the Middle East, then traveled both east and west along this Central Asian superhighway. A smaller group continued moving north from the Middle East to Anatolia and the Balkans, trading familiar grasslands for forests and high country.
M170: Occupying the Balkans
Time of Emergence: 20,000 years ago
Place of Origin: Southeastern Europe
Climate: Height of the Ice Age
Estimated Number of Homo sapiens: Hundreds of thousands
Tools and Skills: Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic
Your ancestors were part of the M89 Middle Eastern Clan that continued to migrate northwest into the Balkans and eventually spread into central Europe. These people may have been responsible for the expansion of the prosperous Gravettian culture, which spread through northern Europe from about 21,000 to 28,000 years ago.
The Gravettian culture represents the second technological phase to sweep through prehistoric western Europe. It is named after a site in La Gravette, France, where a set of tools different from the preceding era (Aurignacian culture) was found. The Gravettian stone tool kit included a distinctive small pointed blade used for hunting big game.
The Gravettian culture is also known for their voluptuous carvings of big-bellied females often dubbed “Venus” figures. The small, frequently hand-sized sculptures appear to be of pregnant womenâ€”obesity not being a problem for hunter-gatherersâ€”and may have served as fertility icons or as emblems conferring protection of some sort. Alternatively, they may have represented goddesses.
These early European ancestors of yours used communal hunting techniques, created shell jewelry, and used mammoth bones to build their homes. Recent findings suggest that the Gravettians may have discovered how to weave clothing using natural fibers as early as 25,000 years ago. Earlier estimates had placed weaving at about the same time as the emergence of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago.
Your most recent common ancestor, the man who gave rise to marker M170, was born about 20,000 years ago and was heir to this heritage. He was probably born in one of the isolated refuge areas people were forced to occupy during the last blast of the Ice Age, possibly in the Balkans. As the ice sheets covering much of Europe began to retreat around 15,000 years ago, his descendants likely played a central role in recolonizing northern Europe.
It’s possible that the Vikings descended from this line. The Viking raids on the British Isles might explain why the lineage can be found in populations in southern France and among some Celtic populations.
This is where your genetic trail, as we know it today, ends. However, be sure to revisit these pages. As additional data are collected and analyzed, more will be learned about your place in the history of the men and women who first populated the Earth. We will be updating these stories throughout the life of the project.
You should bear in mind that the Genographic Project is not without its detractors — I’ll be discussing some of the controversy surrounding the project, and the arguments of the project’s detractors, in a later post. Meanwhile, other people have put some or all of their genographic results online as well. If you’re curious, here are the ones I’ve found (primarily R1b’ers, the most prevalent Y chromosome haplotype among western Europeans):
National Geographicâ€™s Genographic Project – Travel (mtDNA haplogroup L3)
Design Your Life – The Genographic Project (Michelle Qureshi, mtDNA haplogroup H)
Genographic Project Participation (Paul John Kurf, Y haplogroup M)
My Genographic Project Results : The Personal Genome (Jason Bobe, Y haplogroup R1b)
Genographic Project Results (K. Rogers, Y haplogroup R1b)
Ancient Ancestors (Ben Cragan, Y haplogroup R1b)
Justin Blanton | The Genographic Project (Y haplogroup R1b)
blivet 2.0 Â» My Results from The Genographic Project (Hal Rager, Y haplogroup R1b)