Alternatively titled “Now I Know That My Imagination’s Uncontrollable Flights of Whimsy into Scandinavian Hyperborean Dream States is All in My Genes”
(The human family tree only started to separate into diverging branches about 2,000 generations ago…)
After six weeks of patiently checking in every day, I finally got my DNA results back from The Genographic Project yesterday! I thought the timing was quite fitting, as today is my birthday (and Missa‘s and Lucia’s)! When Adam got me the testing kit for Christmas (as he pointed out, it turned out to be a Christmas AND birthday gift) I was so happy to finally have the opportunity to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for years- trace my ancient heritage back to the dawn of humankind.
The Genographic Project is an amazingly ambitious endeavor by The National Geographic Society and Dr. Spencer Wells to map the genetic journey that the ancestors of modern humans took when we left Africa some 60,000 years ago. (I just noticed that I wrote “we” there instead of “they”, which is forcing me to share that Faulkner quote yet again because I seem to have just subconsciously proven it somehow true, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past”.) I am so inspired by this project, and by the fact that these questions that humans have been asking for millennia about where we came from and how we are got here are now being answered. And that we can all participate in the uncovering of this knowledge!
Each of us comes from a seemingly endless line of ancestors, the number of them doubling each generation further back we go. But modern day testing only allows you to trace two lines- either your pure maternal line (mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother…) via the Mitochondrial DNA that only women pass down, or your pure paternal line (father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father…) via the Y chromosome. Women don’t have a Y chromosome, so if we want to trace our patrilineal heritage we need to have a close male relative submit his DNA.
I started getting interested in all of this a few years ago when I started learning more about my immediate ancestors. I was fascinated by their stories, and amazed at how close they all felt to me, how real it suddenly seemed that these people who I had never met had had a major influence on who I was to become. But my mind would wander off, wander outward, and I’d wonder about my, as they call it, Deep Ancestry. The people whose names I would never know, who lived in pre-history, who were certainly not born in America. I had looked into various DNA testing companies, but didn’t have the money or inclination to participate just yet.
That all changed when I watched The Human Family Tree (<-streaming on Netflix!), an informative and moving special by National Geographic. I was blown away by how far our gene-tracing technology has come, touched by how genetically close we really all are, and floored by the prospect of contributing my DNA to this large database of knowledge and finding out more about myself and my deep ancestry in the process. (I would add that this looks to me to be the cheapest way to find out your own ancient ancestry, plus you have the chance to add to a large pool of data and help this branch of science progress forward.)
In case you’re a total psychopath who finds all of this boring and can’t imagine how the lives and selves of your ancestors effect you today, consider how totally unlikely it is that you exist at all and how every decision each of your millions of antecedents made somehow all led to you being here now:
I was recently watching Faces of America, a PBS documentary that explores the ancestry of famous people (yes, much like Who Do You Think You Are?) and in it the host Henry Louis Gates Jr. asks Meryl Streep “Do you think that our ancestors shape who we are?” and she answers, succinctly but eloquently, “We are nothing but them”.
You see, all of this matters. So I was absolutely thrilled, and quite surprised, to find that my long line of maternal grandmothers and I belong to Haplogroup V. (Simply put, a haplogroup is a group of people who share a common ancestor). I was pretty sure my ancestry would be European (though the farthest back I’ve been able to trace my matrilineal heritage is French Canada in the 1800s), but I never would have expected to belong to this particular group.
Haplogroup V is the least common of the 7 European clans defined in Bryan Sykes book The Seven Daughters of Eve, which I read sometime last year and am certainly going to read again soon (with renewed interest)! In it, Sykes assigns names to each ancestral clan mother, and Haplogroup V’s matriarch is bequeathed the moniker Velda.
According to Swanstrom “Velda is the smallest of the seven European clans containing only about 4% of native Europeans. Velda lived 17 thousand years ago (~850 generations) in the limestone hills of Cantabria in northwest Spain. Her descendants are found nowadays mainly in western and northern Europe. They are surprisingly frequent among the Skolt Sámi (Lapps) (50%) of Scandinavia and the Basques (12%) of Spain.” And according to Eupedia “Haplogroup V reaches its highest frequency in northern Scandinavia (40% of the Sami), northern Spain, the Netherlands (8%), Sardinia, the Croatian islands and the Maghreb. It is likely that H1, H3 and V, along with haplogroup U5, were the main haplogroups of Western European hunter-gatherers living in the Franco-Cantabrian refuge during the last Ice Age, and repopulated much of Central and Northern Europe from 15,000 years ago.”
This graphic shows Haplogroup V and H (which gave rise to V)’s worldwide distribution today. I wonder how common this genetic marker is in America? According to this it’s between 0 and .5%, but that seems so low. Although National Geographic does echo the sentiment that not many of Velda’s descendants live outside of Europe now, “Today, Haplogroup V tends to be restricted to western, central, and northern Europe. It’s age is estimated at around 15,000 years old, indicating that it likely arose during the 5,000 years or so that humans were confined to the European refuge [meaning during the last Ice Age].”
I’ll probably never know which Haplogroup V subgroup I am descended from, though it is nice to belong to such a small group and have the options be less that they could otherwise be. What I do know though is that my ancestors lived in or near the Northernmost reaches of Europe, quite possibly in Scandinavia. Although none of my genealogy work has linked any of my more immediate ancestors to this region, I have always felt a sort of spiritual affinity with these wintry latitudes and their inhabitants. A while back I posted about my Deep Genealogy work with my herbalist friend Atava. I remember during our first conversation she asked me about my family history and what I am drawn to most. I mentioned the Scandinavian connection, but quickly followed up by saying that I have no evidence that I am indeed a descendent of anyone who has lived there.
Well, that has all changed now. Now I know that my nerdy obsession with the word hyperborean (I’ve been able to use it twice on facebook and once on twitter and many times in conversations ever since I came across it in my gigantic old dictionary last winter) is somewhat justified. Hyperborean means “beyond the north wind”, and I just think that that is the most beautiful sentiment to be able to express in one word. Just imagining a place beyond the north wind immediately sends my imagination into a dreamy revery full of old earth spirits, wise animal guides, and hearty folk who spend their evenings rosy-cheeked beside the roar of the hearth fire.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I have a love for all European folk prints, and especially those of the Scandinavian persuasion. I will stock my shop with any vintage dress that features one, and am always looking for new art to hang on my walls.
My shelves are lined with books about Northern Europe in the Ice Age and the Middle Ages. I love Norse mythology and yew trees. I love Viking history. I love their ships and especially the prows of their ships. In the most epic dream I’ve ever had I was in a sort of dusky underworld, floating along alone on a classic Viking ship on a murky river reminiscent of Styx. The prow was a three-headed snake/dragon that was alive, each creature slithering its long head over and under that of its companions. The ship with its living three-headed prow serpent was taking me somewhere secret and subterranean.
And of course, there’s the ever-present mind-lure of Arctic whaling. I love reading stories, both fictional and true, about the crazy ass whalers who braved the ice to chase enormous sea creatures in the name of savagery and profit. (If this is your first time reading this blog, rest assured that I do not support whaling, but am fascinated by its history).
Don’t even get me started on the Nordic fjords.
I’ve also been enamored of the Sami people ever since reading about them a few years ago. The November 2011 issue of National Geographic featured the most gorgeous photographic essay about these folk, who spend their time following their reindeer herds between Siberia and Scandinavia:
Then recently I found out that my lovely & amazing friend Summer is a direct Sami descendant (and doesn’t she just look the part?) and the first words out of my mouth were “No wonder I feel such a kinship with you!” or something of the like, having no idea that that statement was more literal than metaphorical.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from The Genographic Project, it’s that we really and truly are all connected. It’s a scientific fact. Somewhere back in time, Summer here and I share an ancestor. And if you keep going back, or forward, you and I do too.
We all come from the same place and the same small group of African hominids who were lucky or smart or destined enough to outwit their surroundings and beat the odds when all other hominid lines failed. And yet, as Dr. Wells points out, what really stands out from this project’s data is that we’re all so different. Haplogroup V diverges from all the other haplogroups in ways geographic, cultural, and perhaps even spiritual. Each lineage, each family, each individual is a joyful expression of the heartbreakingly beautiful dance of cosmic evolution of which we are all a blessed part.
Each atom in our bodies was born of supernova explosions millions of years ago. We are literally made of stardust, and the cosmos are our most ancient ancestors. Speaking of, have you heard Bjork’s latest album Biophilia? Especially the song Cosmogony? Bjork, who I have always loved, who I have always been told I resemble (especially my childood pictures), and who I am now officially considering kin since she is from Northern Europe, certainly understands the common origins of all of life.
I will move onward from this day, my birthday, knowing that much more about where I come from, feeling supported by all who came before me and all that carries me forward in strong and silent ways of which I will never be consciously aware.
(Maybe my 300th great-grandmother used to sing my 299th great-grandmother to sleep with a North Germanic lullaby such as this one…)