You are not who you think you are. Meet the family.
I recently took a DNA test, and it was a revelation. If, like me, you are white and of European ancestry, my test results may say as much about you as they do about me.
The reason I took the test was not to find more relatives, or to know more about them (I know quite enough), or to find out what disease might get me in the end. No — what I really wanted to know was the route that my forebears took when they left Africa, upwards of 80,000 years ago.
I’m a nutrition science writer and was curious to find out who these people were, and what they ate as they journeyed to and through Europe. Yes, I know that last part is something of a niche interest. I appreciate not everyone shares my curiosity. Stay with me, though, because the journey is a fascinating insight into our collective past, regardless of dietary preferences.
I chose a test that reveals both recent and distant history. Autosomal DNA provides ethnicity and recent history, both maternal and paternal. My autosomal DNA analysis revealed, not unexpectedly, that I’m 100% Irish and British, though more Irish than British. I must admit to some disappointment — I was rather hoping for a racy curveball thrown into the mix, a forensic clue to some foreign affair, but no such luck.
So far, so unremarkable. It’s only when the analysis delves deeper that things start to look more interesting.
Maternal genetic information comes from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). You inherit mtDNA from your mother and Y-DNA from your father.
Both males and females receive maternal mtDNA, so everyone can take an mtDNA test. However, only males can trace their paternal line, through Y-DNA analysis.
My mtDNA analysis revealed that I belong to a subclade of haplogroup H. A haplogroup is a genetic population, sharing the same inherited mtDNA. It turns out that that haplogroup H is common in all Western European populations. If you have European ancestry, it is quite possible that you too belong to this group.
Despite this, the highest frequency of my DNA “tribe” is found among the Tuareg people of the Fezzan region of Libya. The Tuareg are traditionally nomadic pastoralists.
This finding raises more questions than it answers. What’s my DNA doing in Libya? How is that even possible, considering that I have 100% Irish and British ancestry?
All about Eve
Because mtDNA undergoes occasional mutations that are passed on from mother to daughter, the family line can be traced back to the first mother (“Mitochondrial Eve”) and also to where and when these mutations occurred. We know that the oldest changes in our mtDNA took place in Africa 190,000–150,000 years ago. Then, new mutations appeared in Asia about 80,000–60,000 years ago. This tells us that modern humans evolved in Africa, and that some migrated out of Africa into Asia approximately 80,000 years ago.
Similarly, Y-DNA can be traced back in an unbroken line to our original male African ancestor.
Genetic evidence proves that modern humans originate from a single genetic line, going back to equatorial East Africa, within the last 200,000 years. We all have a common ancestor: today, every non-African person can trace their lineage back to this ancestor.
Homo sapiens left Africa 65,000 to 80,000 years ago — possibly even earlier. (Elephants and other large mammals were very much on the menu, if that interests you). When we left, we took the southern, coastal route (eating plenty of fish and shellfish along the way).
Some travelled through Arabia and South Asia, ending up in Australasia. Australia was reached approximately 50,000 years ago.
Others reached and started populating the Eurasian continent (Europe and Asia combined) around 70,000–60,000 years ago. Another group went to the Levant, a large, Eastern Mediterranean area covering what today is Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and most of Turkey.
But my haplogroup tribe headed mainly to Europe, where today they remain common across the continent, with many subclades.
It’s cold up North
What’s so remarkable about all this long-distance travelling is that it took place during the Ice Age. This period began about 2.6 million years ago and ended just 11,700 years ago — in terms of our existence, just a moment ago. For almost our entire history, the Ice Age was all we knew.
It was fiercely cold, with winter temperatures averaging -20°C to -30°C. Much of Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia were covered in ice sheets. You have to wonder why humans left the year-round warmth of equatorial East Africa and set off to explore colder climes. We don’t really know why (there are many theories), though humans are big-brained and like exploring, so the answer may be as simple as that.
Our European ancestors are the descendants of hardy nomads that travelled with the melting icecaps and migrating animals. They hunted, they fished, and they foraged, although the harsh climate meant that there was limited plant food available. Not surprisingly, they showed a preference for large, fatty mammals such as woolly mammoths. They also ate a lot of reindeer after reaching the northern Arctic Russia area some 40,000 years ago. But I digress.
Not all haplogroup H people stayed in Europe. Perhaps they found the climate disagreeable and retained a ghost of DNA memory of warmer climes. In any event, a group of them headed back to Africa — North Africa. This “back to Africa” migration occurred approximately 45,000 years ago and explains why the DNA of white Europeans like me is found there — North Africans have a West European component to their genetic makeup.
That also explains why North African groups also have some Neanderthal DNA.
If you have European ancestry, you’re probably a bit Neanderthal too. It took 15,000–20,000 years to colonize the whole of Europe, during which time there was quite a lot of fraternising with the local Neanderthals, and a few other species of humans who left Africa long before H. sapiens set sail.
As if the weather wasn’t bad enough, the Ice Age was punctuated by peak ice periods that were particularly harsh. The last one (called the Last Glacial Maximum) occurred about 22,000 years ago. It was so effing cold that people spent their lives hunkered down in “refugias” — geographical regions that were warmer and more hospitable than everywhere else. These European refugias were found in what is now southern France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, the Balkans and the Levant (where the elephant was still a favourite).
Once the ice caps began to recede, and the climate warm up (relatively speaking), out these people came and on they went, colonising Western and Central Europe.
The Irish Connection
Haplogroup H came mainly from the Iberian Peninsula. This is an area that today corresponds roughly to Spain, Portugal and Andorra. Perhaps the post-Last Glacial Maximum period was too warm for some of these Iberian folk, because off some of them went again — this time to Ireland. Perhaps they felt more at home in the cold and damp.
You may think of Irish people as Celts, but that is not a true picture. The Celts were latecomers to this party.
The first people to go to Ireland travelled from what is now Spain into Southern Ireland (via ice bridges from Britain) and began to spread across the whole country. These people were hunter-gatherers (the giant Irish elk was a favourite, though sadly no longer with us). They were haplogroup H nomads.
As the Palaeolithic was coming to an end, along came farming populations — again from Spain. They mingled with the hunter-gatherers already there.
The millennia rolled on, as did the waves of different peoples arriving in Britain and Ireland from Europe and elsewhere, mixing their different haplogroup DNA with the natives. Eventually — 500BC — the Celts arrived. The Celts were Iron Age people who introduced their Indo-European languages that formed the basis for Gaelic. The Celts had red hair, but then so too did those strapping Neanderthals.
Within a few hundred years, the Celtic culture was dominant. Which brings us back to the here and now.
Today, haplogroup H is found predominantly in Europe, but is also common in North Africa and the Middle East, among Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis. It still occurs at high frequencies throughout Spain, Portugal, and parts of France, Gibralter and Andorra.
All this from a swab
Here’s the most striking revelation to emerge from human DNA sequencing: we are all related to each other. We all trace our ancestry back along a single line that came out of Africa. With the exception of those Africans who never left home, all our ancestors have, at some point, got into boats or walked huge distances, in search of a better life.
So why am I white and not black? My ancestors once were, but they lost their skin pigmentation along the way.
The explanation of how they came to change skin colour is simpler than you might imagine. Moving away from the equator meant reduced exposure to sunlight, which in turn meant an urgent need to lose melanin in order to make vitamin D. This is the subject of my article “How Your Skin Colour is Linked to Your Mental Health”.
How your skin colour is linked to your mental health
There is no such thing as race. Only vitamin D.
If we are all related, and skin colour merely a matter of sun exposure, why do we talk about race? I also answer that one in my article. It turns out that there is no such thing as race. It’s a myth, one of many myths that modern Homo sapiens have created out of their big, foolish noggins.
I live on the south coast of England, near Dover, the closest point to France. You can see France on a clear day; it’s less than 21 miles away.
Almost every day there are reports of migrants arriving in leaky, overcrowded dinghies from France. I have seen rescue operations. These people have travelled from far and wide, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya.
They travel across continents by any means available to them, including foot and boat, just like their ancestors did so many thousands of years ago. The truth is, human movement across the globe is a phenomenon that has never ended, despite efforts to prevent it. There is no “end of history”. Borders are no obstacle to the human desire to set off in search of a better life, or to escape a desperate one.
I wonder what it is that men, women (some pregnant), and children are leaving behind that is more terrifying than the perilous sea crossing before them. I also think there must be a good proportion of haplogroup H among them.
In the meantime, there is much outrage at the seemingly unstoppable “wave” of migrants arriving here, and elsewhere throughout Europe. My local Facebook page fulminates with indignation at these “illegals”.
Whatever anyone’s opinion, I wonder if trying to prevent humans from traversing the globe in search of a better life is like King Canute sitting on his beach throne, attempting to hold back the incoming tide.
When we trace our ancestry, we see that we are all where we are today because of those who came before us.
I still have only half the story. Now, I just have to persuade my brother to take a DNA test in order to trace our patrilineal ancestry. Perhaps that curveball will make an appearance after all.