For Christmas my brother gave me a genetic test kit. You send in a sample to a company and they determine your genetic heritage and health profile. I carefully followed the directions and dutifully filled the sample tube with saliva. It took me nearly five minutes to produce enough spit. That was the most disagreeable part of the test.
Several weeks later the results were posted to my personal site online. Most of the information was similar to my brother’s and, of course, 50% similar to my mother’s, both family members having completed earlier tests.
There were a couple surprises. One is that there is no Native American DNA showing up on my father’s side. The family lore holds that my dad was 1/64th Abanaki. No such relationship was evident. On the contrary, the only possible Native American blood came from my mother’s side, and it was merely a trace. Most likely this DNA came into the family while my mother’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine during the middle of the 1800s. Someone might have mated with a Russian of Siberian heritage. My mother’s family is almost exclusively of German ancestry that moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, then onto the plains of America at the turn of the last century. They were all farmers.
The most surprising revelation to me was the relatively high level of Neanderthal variation in my DNA. The Neanderthals are often called a species of human that came out of Africa, moved into Europe and went extinct with the advance of modern humans. Turns out that picture is not as clear as once supposed. Neanderthal DNA seems to be turning up regularly in individuals of European descent. My own DNA has 299 variants, greater than 81% of people who have been tested by this company.
Neanderthals can not have been a separate species from human or they would not have been able to interbreed and produce viable offspring. Neanderthals were actual humans. Research into their caves and burial sites is showing that these people were not the brutish, stupid cavemen once imagined. They had sophisticated societies with weaponry and knowledge of animals and plants including medicinal plants. They cared for their old and infirm. When an individual died, the others provided a decent burial. There is also evidence of cannibalism, so I guess not everyone was treated the same. Perhaps they ate their enemies or their particularly venerated elders?
So DNA testing has shown that Neanderthals did not go extinct, they became us. Many of us would not exist without their genes. Somewhere in the dark and misty past, Neanderthals combined with what is considered modern humans to produce us; ultra-modern humans, I suppose. Or perhaps we are merely glorified cavemen coping in the modern world we have constructed?