This week my theme is the search for one’s ancestors and the surprising places it can take us:
- The founders of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, Maryland (Joshua Dorsey Warfield). Have you ever wondered about the people whose names are reflected in local places (Scaggsville), roads (Snowden River Parkway), and neighborhoods (Shipley’s Grant)? This is one of the (if not the) ur-texts of genealogy in Howard County: “At the beginning of this new century we are going to the garrets, bringing out the portraits of our forefathers, brushing off the dust,—putting them into new frames and handing them down to our children. Search the records for their good deeds.” See also the Howard County Genealogical Society.1
- Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (PBS). Genealogy gets the reality show treatment, complete with the requisite dramatic reveals at the conclusion of each episode: “Working closely with leading U.S. genealogists … and ancestry experts from around the world, Gates and his production team comb through family stories to discover unknown histories and relatives the guests never knew existed. When paper trails end for each story, the team turns to top geneticists and DNA diagnosticians … to analyze each participant’s genetic code, tracing their bloodlines and occasionally debunking their long-held notions and beliefs.” You can view all the episodes online; I watched the one with Cory Booker and John Lewis, which has an especially moving narrative involving Lewis’s ancestors.
- “DNA Testing for Genealogy—Getting Started, Part One” (CeCe Moore). If your relative who keeps the family history starts talking about SNPs, haplotypes, and mitochondrial DNA, now you’ll know why: “Interest in DNA testing for genealogy has reached an all-time high thanks to its increasing sophistication and the resulting visibility in the media. … As a result, many family history enthusiasts have expressed their desire to venture into the fascinating world of genetic genealogy, but don’t know where to start. If you are one of these people, then I am writing this for you.”2
- ”About the Genographic Project” (National Geographic Society). The National Geographic Society continues its tradition of making the exotic familiar: “… we have developed a cutting-edge new test kit, called Geno 2.0, that enables members of the public to participate in the Genographic Project while learning fascinating insights about their own ancestry. … Included in the markers we will test for is a subset that scientists have recently determined to be from our hominin cousins, Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans … With Geno 2.0, you will learn if you have any Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in your genome.”
- “Neandertals Live!” (John Hawks). Hawks is an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a prolific blogger. Here he reacts to the announcement of the sequencing of the Neandertal genome and the evidence that some (not all) humans have Neandertal ancestry: “These scientists have given an immense gift to humanity. I’ve been comparing it to the pictures of Earth that came back from Apollo 8. The Neandertal genome gives us a picture of ourselves, from the outside looking in. We can see, and now learn about, the essential genetic changes that make us human—the things that made our emergence as a global species possible.” Hawks also has some things to say about the Denisovans.3
- “‘Bigfoot’ DNA Sequenced In Upcoming Genetics Study” (Dr. Melba Ketchum and associates). Perennially frustrated Sasquatch hunters want to join the genome sequencing archaic human interbreeding fun: “The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch [mitochondrial DNA] is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but Sasquatch [nuclear DNA] is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.” However they didn’t release the actual genome data, so for now this remains just a tease, the scientific equivalent of Finding Bigfoot.4
1. The Warfield book is in the public domain, so I’ve pointed to the free downloadable copy in the Internet Archive. You can also find versions in various formats at Amazon or elsewhere; some of these may feature cleaner conversions of the text.
2. Of the various services providing products in this space, Family Tree DNA is the apparent favorite among the cognoscenti, Ancestry DNA is going after the mass market, African Ancestry is a specialty service for African-Americans, and 23andMe is doing this as an follow-on product to their original health-related service. Recall also that Maryland residents are forbidden to use 23andMe.
3. In discussing the Neandertal genome, Hawks goes on to say, “[The scientists who sequenced the genome have] taken all of their data and deposited it in a public database, so that the rest of us can inspect them, replicate results, and learn new things from them. High school kids can download this stuff and do science fair projects on Neandertal genomics.” I’m not sure we’re quite there yet on the science fair front, but interested high school students have lots of other genetics and genomics science fair project ideas to choose from.
4. If and when Dr. Ketchum and her team do release sequence data, scientists can use the same techniques used on the Neandertal and Denisovan genomes to determine whether the purported Sasquatch sequence actually makes sense or is the result of fakery, contamination by real human DNA, or whatever.