Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thinking about our ancestry

I heard Henry Lewis Gates on television last night in an interview in which he expressed his long term interest in know from what tribe he was descended. It would seem that he is descended from the Milesians by patrilineal descent. After all his y chromosome shows he is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages by route of an Irish immigrant ancestor named Gates who was in a common law relationship with a slave girl.

Gates efforts to trace his ancestry and those of some famous people has been fun, and has served a useful purpose of showing how complicated our family trees have been in America in the last few hundred years, and how little historical accuracy the labels we have used have really had.

However, I got to thinking of how much more interesting the migration of our ancestors really was. Homo sapiens as a species apparently arose in East Africa and during the Late Pleistocene Epoch was reduced to only a few thousand members, apparently still in Africa. Some of Gates recent ancestors lived in West Africa, and there must have been a complex process by which members of our species reached West Africa and populated the various tribes and states of that region, eventually arriving at the populations that were ravaged by disease, wars and the slave trade brought by Europeans. (Did you know that not only were an estimated 13 million West Africans killed or taken in the slave trade, but many epidemics of diseases new to the region brought be European sailors and traders? The Sahara had effectively shielded West Africa from the diseases endemic to Europe and Asia until Europeans started sailing down the west coast of Africa, but once there they triggered epidemic after epidemic.)

Gates' Irish ancestors spoke an Indo-European language, suggesting that a torturous path had been traced from Africa, through the Middle East to Central Asia and then west to Europe and finally to the island of Ireland. He had other European ancestors, and they also were the results of ancestral chains that roamed from Africa through parts of Asia and Europe before finally jumping the Atlantic to the Americas.

The Africans taken into slavery suffered greatly; death rates were very high in the slave ships and in the plantations in which so many worked. Our European ancestors survived the plague (which killed one-third of the population of Europe) as well as many other epidemic and endemic diseases, at least long enough to leave their progeny. Going further back, the tribal groups that eventually populated West Africa, Ireland and Europe must have had very hard lives and very short life expectancy. When the population of Homo sapiens went through its bottleneck and got down to a few thousand people, life must have been really tough.

The adventures of our ancestors must have been really something, perhaps worse than we can possibly imagine.

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