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by Margaret Miller, Vancouver BC
in the Spring Issue, Vol. 30, No. 3, p.44
of Dialogue magazine

Margaret Miller, Vancouver BC

My centenarian aunt and I live together in an old house in Vancouver. One of our favourite things to do in the evening is watch popular science TV shows about human origins and the early migrations of our ancient ancestors out of Africa and around the world. As we understand it, advances in this field have come from basic spade work and from major technological and scientific advances, especially breakthroughs in human and hominin DNA sequencing. When looking at these programs we wonder how our own stories might fit in with those of these ancient people and their journeys; we also wonder how our ancestors’ experiences and ways of being might relate to the current state of the world.

A few years ago one of our friends had a DNA test that traced her ancient ancestry. My aunt and I thought this was pretty exciting and decided to have our DNA tested too. There are a few different organizations doing this kind of testing but we eventually went with the National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which collects DNA with the goal of understanding humanity’s genetic roots and how, since leaving Africa about 67,000 years ago, we came to populate the world. The Project identifies the unique genetic markers that reveal participants’ “deep ancestry” as well as their specific regional affiliations. And because our ancestors mixed with ancient hominins, results also give percentages of participants’ Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry. So we signed up, paid our money, received our kits in the mail, sent back our DNA swabs, and waited.

But before going any further with my story I need to give some background.

First, my aunt loves Neanderthals. For decades after the 1892 discovery of Neanderthal bones in what is now Belgium, Neanderthals were considered in the popular imagination to be the quintessential “cave men” – low browed, fist dragging, and stupid. Aunt Margaret long had an inkling that they were getting a bad rap, that they were somehow being underrated, but her position was definitely in the minority. Then in the 1950s she heard the news of the discovery of a Neanderthal grave in Iraq. What struck Aunt Margaret (and others) most about these findings was that the people had sprinkled flowers on the grave of their dead companion. This was hardly the behaviour, she said, of our stereotypical glowering, lumbering brute. Rather, she thought that this was the action of a people with an awareness of beauty and a need for love and relationships. Since then, further discoveries have confirmed that there is much more to the Neanderthals than was originally supposed and that, as Aunt Margaret said, they have indeed gotten a very bad rap.

The second thing to know is that I am crazy about Bedouins. If I was to fix a date on when this love was kindled it would have to be when as a little girl I saw the film Lawrence of Arabia for the first of many times. I was transfixed by the scenes of the Bedouin, the most memorable being the camel charge down a wadi lined by rows of ululating Bedouin women.* And though my post-colonial mind is somewhat loath to say it, I was also enthralled by Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of Howeitat leader Auda Abu Tayi proclaiming “I am a river to my people!”

As a teenager living in a city in a temperate rain forest I spent hours drawing desert scenes with nomadic tents and shimmering moons and for my first serious travels I headed for the Middle East, ending out in a desert oasis. I was to return to that part of the world many times. My appreciation for the Bedouin was partly aesthetic – I loved their poetry, their jewellery, their clothes. I also loved that their lives seemed to be in almost constant motion. As is often the case with such things I didn’t look deeply at the reasons for my fascination or try to explain it to myself.

Back to my story. After about six weeks of tense waiting the results finally came through online. What did we learn? Jumping out at Aunt Margaret were distant relatives among today’s indigenous Saami people of Scandinavia, while I found out that I have 0.6% Denisovan DNA.

But there were bigger surprises in store.

According to the information we were sent, people may have between 0 and 3% Neanderthal ancestry. Aunt Margaret has 3.7%. She is basically maxed out on Neanderthal genes.

As for me, I share deep ancestry with a group that has a homeland around the Levant, reaches its highest frequency in Arabia, and comprises around a quarter of the Yemeni and Bedouin lineages.

We are, we concluded, a Neanderthal and a Bedouin.

Our first reactions were ones of almost delirious excitement. In a speech on the occasion of her 100th birthday, which took place a few weeks after we received our results, Aunt Margaret told the somewhat bewildered 150 or so assembled friends and family that she was, in fact, a Neanderthal, and that she could attribute her extreme good health and longevity to her Neanderthal roots. As for me, upon receiving my results I immediately went out and rented a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia and watched it, again.

Then we thought a little more about what we had learned and what about the whole experience had most inspired us. Doing these tests undoubtedly left us both with a deeper appreciation of humanity’s complexity and relatedness. Every one of us is the outcome of a spectacular reconfiguration of people of many types across great swaths of time and geography. The idea of some kind of racial purity now seems even more puerile and pathetic. It now seems to us that at our most basic physical levels we are all each other’s relations, connected at a near or great remove. As our ancestors journeyed they may have crossed paths in places and ways we can only begin to imagine. My aunt and I can no longer look into the eyes of a stranger in quite the same way.

As for the fact that our intuition about being a Neanderthal and a Bedouin was so strong and so correct, we are now listening more carefully to what else may lie beneath our conscious thoughts and memories. While we may think of ourselves as modern, at a deep level we now see ourselves as ancient people – looking at the world through ancient eyes, experiencing the world with ancient bones.

And our ancient wisdom is being called for now. With climate change, political upheaval and extreme violence taking the world to a precipice, inspiration and solutions may be found in remembering something we have let sink beneath the surface. Is there a strength in our deep relatedness we can call on now? Is there hope to be found in something about our humanity that we have forgotten? We find ourselves wondering: What else do our bones know?

Margaret Miller, margaret.alice.miller@gmail.com §

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