Can you tell by my hair or my skin color or my eye color? Do I look like what you think of as an African?
As with any race, nationality or ethnicity, many of the defining characteristics are only skin deep. Others do have their roots in genetics and it’s when we dive into our DNA, we find that we are more connected than we ever imagined.
If this sounds like a commercial for all the children of the world to join hands in peace and harmony, it’s not. While the concept is a nice one, what I’m talking about is rooted in science. And it all goes back to a woman dubbed Mitochondrial Eve.
As a Biology major, I probably have greater interest in our genetic origins than the average person but I also taught middle school science so I’m going to break it down for you just in case you need a little refresher.
Our cells are generally complex creations complete with DNA, the instructions for life and every aspect of our genetic makeup, including our physical appearance. But within our cells, we have a little teeny tiny thing called mitochondria, that helps provide energy for the cell. Don’t yawn yet – here’s where is gets interesting.
MITOCHONDRIA HAVE THEIR OWN DNA, SEPARATE FROM OUR NUCLEAR DNA.
Here’s a quick video to explain it. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere cool with this.
If you skipped the video, here’s the one big takeaway. Unlike the DNA we carry in our cells that vary from person to person and generation to generation, our mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is pretty much an exact copy of our mother’s mtDNA. And hers is a copy of her mother’s and so on and so on back to THOUSANDS of years.
With the help of National Geographic’s The Genographic Project, I was able to submit a few cheek cells and add to the project. So far, over 730,000 people in over 100 countries have submitted their information to help compile and compare genetic material found around the world. As a result, they’re able to look at my genetic mutations over thousand of year and determine the most likely ancestral path that was taken to get me to where I am today.
With that in mind, we can look at mtDNA today and know where we all originated. And now maybe the title of this post makes sense.
As you can see, my ancestors (and yours as well) originated 180,000 years ago in East Africa. Here are some other keys facts I learned about my lineage.
- An individual underwent a mutation to her mitochondrial DNA, which was passed onto her children. The children were successful, and their descendants ultimately broke away from L1’2’3’4’5’6 (that of Mitochondrial Eve), eventually separating into a new group called L3.
- While L3 individuals are found all over Africa, L3 is important for its movements north. Your L3 ancestors were significant because they are the first modern humans to have left Africa, representing the deepest branches of the tree found outside of that continent.
While I started out with roots in Africa, I was part of a group that migrated north.
Now we start digging into things called Haplogroups, a fancy name for my branch on the human tree. Here’s what I learned about Haplogroup N:
- My particular group moved north rather than east and left the African continent across the Sinai Peninsula, in present-day Egypt.
- Early members of this group lived in the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia, where they likely coexisted for a time with other hominids such as Neanderthals.
- Because almost all of the mitochondrial lineages found in the Near East and Europe descend from N, it is considered a western Eurasian haplogroup.
After spending time as an African, I was then considered Asian.
While people that are part of the N1 branch are mostly commonly still found in the area on the map, there were groups that eventually traveled to Europe.
- This point in your ancestors’ journey began around 52,000 years ago in West Asia. This lineage and its descendant branches remain most common in its homeland.
As you can imagine, my most commonly known ancestry is European in nature and I have the genetics to prove it.
But the journey doesn’t end there. It shows a more modern look at where I came from.
At first glance, it may look like I’m Northern European, Mediterranean, and Southwest Asian. But what is actually means is that my genetic profile is found in those proportions in those areas of the world. Which means, I have relatives all over the world.
When digging deeper, my results don’t tell me my heritage. Instead, it compares my genetic profile to other registered participants and finds where my profile most closely aligns.
The final results? My genetics look awfully similar to those of British and German participants. And as it so happens, I have direct knowledge of my ancestors traveling from both Germany and England to the United States within the past 300 years.
What’s more interesting is that my National Geographic results can be shared with Family Tree DNA which allows me to delve deeper into genealogy. My sister does a lot of work on this stuff so I’m content to keep it high level but I did find it interesting that my genetics tend to match (in ranking order) those from England, Germany, and Scotland, the last one being news to me.
Even if you’re not terribly interested in genealogy, participating in the project is helping contribute to the greater human story. But even more importantly, my son took a look at the results and now truly believes everyone in the world is his family. Perhaps that’s the greatest result of all.
National Geographic provided me a complimentary kit for The Genographic Project and I received my results online. I’m totally fascinated by the results and if you are too or you’re still looking for the gift for someone who has everything, Geno 2.0 – Genographic Project Participation and DNA Ancestry Kit is currently $40 off with free shipping.
If you have any questions about my results or what you can learn by participating in the project, please let me know. I love sharing this information!