Several years ago I spit into a tube and sent my saliva off to be analyzed for DNA. From that little bit of my essence I learned more about my probable ancestry and even found cousins that I never knew I had. I have become quite fascinated with stories of how DNA is solving crimes, identifying long lost individuals, explaining human mysteries. It’s a fascinating science that promises to explain much about the history of humankind and lead to better understanding of how and why each of us might react to disease. Somehow I can’t seem to get enough information about the progress of DNA studies and how they are demystifying many of the questions we have about our past, present and future.
Of late the news is exploding with reports of major breakthroughs in the analysis of ancient DNA from human and animal remains many thousands of years old. Scientists around the world are producing a whole new archeological tool called paleogenetics which is demonstrating the patterns of interaction between groups of people from four thousand years ago and explaining why some people died during the Black Plague while others survived.
It’s all quite exciting to me and makes me wonder if one day my DNA profile might be even more detailed than it now is. Am I related to ancient neanderthals? Who were my most ancient ancestors and how has their DNA impacted mine? It’s all so very fascinating and makes me wish that I were young enough to return to college to learn how to become one of the researchers who will unlock the physical history of humans over time.
One group has identified the ancestry of human remains found in a construction site as Ashkenazi Jews all of whom were related. DNA dates the remains as being from around the year somewhere in the early 1100s, a time when there was a third Crusade to the Holy Land and Jews were being persecuted. The remains showed signs of violence leading the scientists to believe that this family was in all likelihood attacked and killed for their religious beliefs.
Other studies of ancient DNA have found what may be one of the first persons to venture into the Americas by way of Asia and then across the Bering Strait. DNA has confirmed that bones found in a gravesite in Russia were indeed Czar Nicholas and his family. Our past is becoming clearer as we learn about the travels and habits of the early ancestors of humankind who intermarried and eventually evolved into homo sapiens.
While I enjoy learning about such things, I also find myself thinking about how small my bit of time on this earth is in the grand scheme of things. I realize that I am but a speck in time, no more important than any of the people who came before me or will come after me. It puts bad days into perspective. I somehow think of those ancient souls and their feelings. They may not have had the book knowledge that I possess, but they had feelings and knew how to survive in ways that I have never had to understand. They had to be more inventive than I am as they wandered across the landscape searching for food and shelter from the elements. Their methods may have been primitive but they were nonetheless precursors to the brilliance of modern science and innovation that makes my life so much more comfortable than theirs.
The DNA stories of these ancient people tell me that they were intelligent and creative, but that they also had to deal with danger and violence. Somehow we humans have forged ahead to make the world more comfortable with our houses and modern conveniences, but the element of danger from each other remains, particularly during recurring times of upheaval.
Today there is war in Ukraine. Women are being persecuted in Iran and Afghanistan. The people of Somalia are starving. Despots abound across the globe. At a time when we should be celebrating peace on earth, goodwill toward our fellow humans we sometimes seem more divided than ever. We quibble over how to best live while getting nothing done to improve things. The kind of hate that killed those Jews from eleven centuries ago still exists in many hearts. Somehow we muddle along not knowing how to live together as a community of souls willing to look beyond our differences. We remain a combination of the best and worst aspects of our humanity, sometimes allowing our basest instincts to overtake us.
As a new year dawns it would be lovely if we might finally join hands in love, but history tells us that we still have an ugly side to our natures that rears its head over and over again. All we can do is resolve to be better one person at a time. I still believe we are getting there, but the work to bring peace to our earth is far from done. Understanding who we are and who we have been will lead us to better days as more and more of us realize that we are given only a brief moment in time to set things right. Time to get busy!