Category Archives: Genetics

Walking with the Ancestors Part 7-A

The next stop on our journey is a little bit west of the Anzick Boy, as discussed in Chapter 6 of this project. This time we are around 9000 years ago, in the state now known as Washington.

anzick-kennewick

We are at the teal dot on the west coast of the USA, circa 9,000 years ago

This find is known as the Kennewick Man, or The Ancient One, and has a long and controversial story behind it. I am going to use a few selections here to set the scene.

In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.” (Smithsonian/history)

What was evident right away was how complete the skeleton, which is often not the case with these kind of finds. To see a picture of the skeleton, be sure to check out the NPR link below. There is some great material there, which I am only going to be able to discuss a small segment here.

Okay, so a couple of college students stumble over this really complete skeleton, and almost immediately a controversy breaks out. One of the big reasons being, and something I have mentioned before; the conflict between respect for the dead and the need for future study and research. I will take a few more excerpts to really put this into perspective.

The fight has been raging for 20 years, ever since a couple of college kids stumbled — literally — across a human skull while wading in a river in Washington state. They thought they’d found a murder victim, and flagged down a nearby cop, who called in a local expert. Instead, they had discovered some of the oldest, most complete human remains ever dug up in North America.

Archaeologists dubbed the skeleton Kennewick Man, after the place he was found, and hoped his bones could help settle one of the greatest mysteries in the story of human migration: how did Homo sapiens, originating in Africa, end up in the Americas?” (NPR)

That sets up one side of this conflict. The archaeologists that excavated the skeleton had a lot of questions, and there was a great deal of testing and research to do before they could even begin to answer some of those questions. It is well known that research and testing is a time intensive process, and so they would need to hold onto the bones for future study. In addition, this says nothing about tests and research tools that have not been discovered yet. If a skeleton is reburied, scientists and future researchers won’t have access to it for future study.

However (and this is kind of a long excerpt;

But a group of Native American tribes considered The Ancient One, as they call him, a direct tribal ancestor — and they didn’t need science to explain how people ended up here. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time,” a leader of the Umatilla tribe wrote in a statement at the time. “We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.”

Working together, five tribes demanded that The Ancient One’s remains not be poked or prodded in the name of science, and instead be promptly reburied in accordance with tribal custom — and under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. That federal law, passed in 1990, requires certain Native American artifacts and remains to be handed over to culturally affiliated tribes or provable descendants.

“The tribes had good reason to be sensitive,” writes Smithsonian Magazine’s Douglas Preston. “The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people.” “ (NPR)

The Native American’s claim was wrapped in a deep history of colonialism and oppression on top of the rights of the dead. This is a big issue, and I certainly don’t have the space to detail it all here. I think the excerpt above gives a rough idea of what we were talking about. It is the intersection of a lot of issues that have had a strong (and often negative) effect on Native peoples across the county.

It is an ongoing struggle for sure; as it highlighted nicely by this excerpt from NPR,

“It’s the chafe between science and spirituality,” writes Kevin Taylor at Indian Country Today, “between people who say the remains have so much to tell us about the ancient human past that they should remain available for research, versus people who feel a kinship with the ancient bones and say they should be reburied to show proper reverence for the dead.” “

I have a lot of thoughts about this, as both a student of anthropology AND a spirit worker/shamanic practitioner. I will come back to this at the end of this piece, because there is more of this story to tell.

So we have these two “sides” in conflict about the ultimate fate the Kennewick Man (anthropologists et al)/ The Ancient One (Native Peoples et al), and is the case with many of these things, the conflict has played out of the last twenty years or so.

But for these bones to fall under the protection of NAGPRA, there had to be proof of a connection between the remains and the people fighting to reclaim them today. The scientists said no such connection existed. The tribal leaders insisted it did; they could feel it in their bones. “ (NPR)

That was the crux of many of the ethical as well as legal fights that took place over the last two decades.

That question ended up spawning an unprecedented legal and ethical battle in which prominent archaeologists and anthropologists would sue the U.S. government for the chance to study the bones. Femur bones would go missing under unexplained circumstances. Bitter arguments would be pitched over the migration patterns and feeding habits of sea lions, the curvature and racial implications of cheekbones, the validity of oral tradition as courtroom evidence. “ (NPR)

The skeleton was found on federal land, so it technically fell under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ control.” (Smithsonian/history)

In 2004, a San Francisco federal appeals court sided with researchers, citing previous analyses that showed Kennewick Man was not Native American, writes Guarino.” (Smithsonian/history)

On and on it went, and for the most part to verdicts favored the scientists. Now, I am not trying to set up the scientists as bad guys, but they didn’t come out looking spotless either. That being said, it is hard to underestimate what we have learned from the Kennewick Man. I wouldn’t be here writing about my ancestral connection to him if we didn’t.

For perspective;

Eventually, the scientists did get a legally approved (though very brief and highly constricted) look at Kennewick Man, and what they learned is truly amazing. Based on the shape of his skull and other features, they theorized that he or his forebears may have been Asian coastal seafarers. They may have journeyed by boat along the south Alaskan shoreline and ultimately all the way down the Americas, hugging the coast and living off kelp, fish, sea lions and the like.”

This is the “coastal migration” theory of the peopling of the Americas, which suggests that a wave, or waves, of people traveled and lived along the Pacific coast long before other travelers chased herds of tasty mastodons and mammoths across a land bridge into Alaska.

They also learned a tremendous amount about what Kennewick Man’s life may have been like. Here’s more from Preston:

“Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it; the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with ‘surfer’s ear,’ caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. … Many years before Kennewick Man’s death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude.” “ (NPR)

It is hard to understate how much we have learned from finds such as this one. Like I said, without his DNA data, I would not know I was related to this man in any way. However, the case of the Kennewick Man is one I learned about in my college days; for exactly the reasons I have laid out here. This find is a great case study concerning how we practice science, as well as how we treat the dead.

I am not trying to mince words here. I do feel that the Native Peoples really got the shaft in this case, up until 2015 (I will get to that in a minute). The unethical practices of some of the scientists was really distasteful, and how both federal law (NAGPRA) as well as the legal system being used for a further tool of exploitation and oppression of Native People’s really leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2015 new research began to pour out that supported the claims of the Native Peoples.

A group of scientists based in Denmark made a major breakthrough in 2015, after they recovered DNA from a fragment of hand bone and used it to map Kennewick Man’s genetic code. When they compared that code with DNA from different populations around the world, the geneticists found it was closest to that of modern Native Americans. Their findings, published in the journal Nature in July 2015, contradicted previous assertions by scientists linking Kennewick Man to Polynesians or to the Ainu people of Japan.

At the initiative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, scientists at the University of Chicago were recently able to independently verify the results of that unprecedented DNA study.” (History)

That DNA is why I am able to talk about this at all. Not only did it confirm my relation to the Kennewick Man, it was also the reason that the bones will be given back to Native Peoples, and proved that their claim was a valid one.

Now, members of the Colville tribe and four others say they’ll work together to complete the repatriation — or reburial — process, and the government has shown zero interest in standing in their way. “ (NPR)

I do not know whether or not the Kennewick Man/Ancient One has been reburied as of this time. But this case does open up a lot of questions about the practice of archaeology, and the role of Native Peoples, as well as the general treatment of the dead.

One of the scientists involved in revealing a genetic connection between Kennewick Man and living Native Americans invited members of the five tribes into the lab, where they put on body suits and entered a “clean room” to pay their respects to The Ancient One. In the wake of Kennewick, scientists have been reflecting on ways to work with indigenous communities when these kinds of conflicts come up:

“Many other researchers are taking a similar approach. [Dennis O’Rourke, a biological anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City] says that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to working with native communities. He finds some of the North American Arctic groups he works with eager to contribute to his research, others are less so; and their opinions shift over time.

” ‘We really have to change the top-down approach, where we come to people and say “these are our research questions and you should participate, because — SCIENCE,” ‘ says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin.” (NPR)

Yet, on the other hand;

Other scientists say there’s a real danger in altering scientific methods to accommodate religious belief. Elizabeth Weiss, an anthropologist at San Jose State, outlined impediments to her own work in a 2001 paper on the Kennewick controversy, and argued that regulations like NAGPRA require far too little evidence proving a cultural connection to modern-day native communities. She also suggested that such regulations — which increased around the world in the wake of NAGPRA — can have a chilling effect on scientific research:

“Consider having dedicated a large part of one’s life to unearthing the materials that are now being examined. Even casts and other important works — such as videotapes, photos, and excavation records — are in increasing danger of confiscation. Some scientists have expressed fear that their federal grants would be in jeopardy if they objected too openly to current policies. Under such circumstances, most scientists do not even begin ‘high-risk’ projects. Finds that could threaten Native American origin beliefs are especially likely to be targeted. Defendants could become embroiled for years in expensive lawsuits that neither they nor their institutions can afford …

“The politics of bone gathering in Africa are notorious … and one shudders to imagine what might happen if activists could convince modern Africans to claim early human skeletons as their ancestors, so that they too could be reburied.” (NPR)

I said I would circle back to this, and here it is. This whole case sets up a clear example of how science can conflict with oral histories, indigenous traditions, and the general respect for the dead. In my opinion, I think it is possible to have our cake and eat it to, it is a question of balance to me. I agree with Raff, in which there is no silver bullet for these issues. That being said, I think there is certainly a case to be made for collaboration instead of competition. When we are talking about skeletal remains, we are not just talking about objects without a context. We are talking about the remains of the dead, and their relationship to their possible still living descendants and traditions.

As both student of anthropology and a spirit worker, I can see this from both sides. I agree partially with Weiss, that there is a real possibility that science may suffer if that uneasy balance is disturbed. As I have already said, I wouldn’t be here talking about the Kennewick Man if it wasn’t for everything we have learned from studying the finds.

If this series has shown anything, is that I can claim “early skeletons” among my ancestors. However, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without science. I think we can find a balance between science, and respect for the dead.

Kennewick Man/The Ancient One: Sadly, I do not have an exact percentage match for this one. The data is not included in the calculation tool I use. However, I do know that I do match this one, but it is a low count. I would put our relationship in the “distant relative category.”

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kennewick_Man

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/05/05/476631934/a-long-complicated-battle-over-9-000-year-old-bones-is-finally-over

http://www.history.com/news/army-corps-of-engineers-confirms-kennewick-man-is-native-american

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/meet-kennewick-man.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/over-9000-years-later-kennewick-man-will-be-given-native-american-burial-180958947/

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Walking with the Ancestors Part 6-A

I just wanted to take this moment to acknowledge two things.

First, this blog is coming up on 900 subscribed followers. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to all my readers. You folks are amazing!

Second, I am creating a master index page for both this series and it’s companion, Walking with the Spirits. The reason is ease of navigation. If you want to read multiple chapters from these two series, I have now made it easier to do so.

Onward!

In the last chapter of this series, I mentioned that we would be moving east across the globe following in the foot steps of my ancestors. For this part of the journey, we have moved across the Beringia Land Bridge, and into North America. It is here we will meet up with the people from the Clovis Culture

clovismap2

Map of the Beringia Land Crossing (From Crystal Links)

So, for context of the Clovis Culture, we turned first to Wikipedia for a brief overview;

“The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, named after distinct stone tools found at sites near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s. The Clovis culture appears around 11,500–11,000 uncal RCYBP (uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present), at the end of the last glacial period, and is characterized by the manufacture of “Clovis points” and distinctive bone and ivory tools. Archaeologists’ most precise determinations at present suggest that this radiocarbon age is equal to roughly 13,200 to 12,900 calendar years ago. Clovis people are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.”

However, it must be said that this particular part of my story does not take place in New Mexico, but in Montana, with the bones of a infant boy. To get a little more context, here is a short excerpt from the BBC article;

“Scientists sequenced the genome of a one-year-old boy who died in what is now Montana about 12,500 years ago.

Some researchers have raised questions about the origins of early Americans, with one theory even proposing a link to Ice Age Europeans.

But the Nature study places the origins of these ancient people in Asia.

The infant was a member of the Clovis people, a widespread, sophisticated Ice Age culture in North America. They appeared in America about 13,000 years ago and hunted mammoth, mastodon and bison.”

anzick-2

(We are at the Lime Green dot in North America, ca 13 kya)

Some of the finds from the Clovis culture in North America are pretty fascinating. Go ahead and type Clovis Culture into Google and just look at some of the things that come up. The artifacts of particular note are the stone points associated with this culture.

I can picture it, this small boy sitting in his mother’s lap, while his father nearby is working away at a stone point for the next mammoth hunt. Which is something to keep in mind over the coarse of this series. We are just talking about artifacts here, but ancestors. Their way of life would have been very different, but they would have been as human as you or me.

Moving on, with a little more context from the BBC;

“The boy’s remains, uncovered at the Anzick Site in Montana in 1968, were associated with distinctive Clovis stone tools. In fact, it is the only known skeleton directly linked to artefacts from this culture…

Eske Willerslev, from the University of Copenhagen, and his colleagues were able to extract DNA from the bones of the Anzick boy and map his genome (the genetic information contained in the nucleus of his cells).

The researchers found that around 80% of today’s Native Americans are related to the “clan” from which the boy came.”

There is quite a bit in this tiny little little paragraph. First off, it tells us a little more about the site when the boy was found in 1968, the Anzick site. The baby boy was found alongside other Clovis-type artifacts, and this connects the boy to the Clovis people, which is a cultural complex that stretched at the time from the state of Washington to Florida.

I have to say that the most exciting part, is how this small boy was related to 80% of living Native American’s today. That would indicate that relatives of this child spread far and wide, in both space and time. His ancestors and relatives would go on to populate parts of both North America, as well as some in South America as well.

However, the Clovis Culture was short lived, though its people lived on. As NPR states;

“The artifacts from this culture (Clovis) are found from Washington state to Florida and many places in between. But the culture also disappeared suddenly, around 12,600 years ago. “

As the article goes on to point out, one of the possible reasons for this disappearance might have been climate change. Right around the time of the end of the Clovis Culture, the Younger Dryas period set in, a time when the climate turned much colder. The Clovis people would have to adapted to this change.

Certainly, there are some parallels to our own time, as we too face a changing climate. I wonder what adaptations we will have to make? What technologies we might have to leave behind? Perhaps that is a post for another time.

Before wrapping this post up, there is one more point I want to raise. In order to continue these studies, more data and research will have to be done. As NPR points out;

“That (the research) will require, among other things, cooperation with native peoples.

In the case of the Clovis child, the archaeologists worked closely with modern tribes to make sure the scientists were treating the remains appropriately. The Clovis infant is to be reburied later this year, on the property where he was unearthed.”

I think this is important to explore for a bit, since we are talking about dead ancestors here. I am thrilled that the archaeologists are working along Native American’s in this work, as I think it should be. As an animist, there is a lot more to working with the dead than just digging up bones. The remains should be treated with respect.

That being said, I do struggle with the idea of reburial. From an animistic perspective, the dead should be respected, and reburial would be the proper thing to do. However, I am also trained in archaeology, and I realize that the techniques and tool of tomorrow’s science may be different than those today. There might be more to learn from these remains, but that would require them being dug up again and again, or housed in a museum.

Honestly, the jury is still out on that one. Perhaps museum/reburial is something we should determine on a case by case basis. In this case, and in cooperation with the local Native Americans, I think they made the right call.

Besides, we are not just talking bones here, but a distant relative of mine as well.

Anzick Boy: 27.85% Match

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

NPR

BBC

Wikipedia (Clovis)

Clovis Culture


Walking with the Ancestors Part 5-A

At this point in the series, there are two major branches we could follow. While we will end up exploring both branches in time, I have decided to tackle them one at a time. So the question before me was, east or west?

After much deliberation with folks on Facebook, which ultimately was futile and full of comments such as “weast” or “north”, I have decided to follow the eastern branch of my ancestry first. I have a couple of reasons why I choose the eastern branch. First, it’s not going to take as much time, as there are far fewer points on the eastern branch. Second, it is the one that piques my curiosity. I have a pretty good understanding of my ancestry, but doing this kind of thing always comes with its surprises. The eastern branch was one of those surprises, and something I didn’t really expect to show up.

But, it wouldn’t be any fun without discovering something new.

In addition, this post bridges better with the last chapter anyway, as I took some liberties to construct the story. Some of those liberties come from the time of the Mal’ta Boy, which is who we will be talking about this time around.

Mal’ta Boy Match; 11.64%

So let’s start with some context shall we?

The Danish-US research was carried out on the bones of a Siberian boy whose remains were found near the village of Mal’ta close to Lake Baikal in the 1920s in a grave adorned with flint tools, pendants, a bead necklace and a sprinkling of ochre. The remains are held in the world famous Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and analysis of a bone in one of his arms represents ‘the oldest complete genome of a modern human sequenced to date’, according to Science magazine.

‘His DNA shows close ties to those of today’s Native Americans. Yet he apparently descended not from East Asians, but from people who had lived in Europe or western Asia,’ said ancient DNA expert Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen. ‘The finding suggests that about a third of the ancestry of today’s Native Americans can be traced to ‘western Eurasia’.’ “ – Siberian Times

Malta

(We are at the yellow dot today, Ca. 27 kya) 

Just as a side note, I will say that the Siberian Times article is certainly worth the look, as it tells a lot of entangled stories. There is the tattooed “Princess Ukok” that was found in the Altai mountains, and dated to about 2,500 years ago. Ancient tattooing! Neat!

But I digress, so how about a little more context, this time from the New York Times, stating that the boy’s DNA held a couple of surprises;

The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Though none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survives, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.

The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — about 25 percent — of the DNA of living Native Americans. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.

The Mal’ta boy was 3 to 4 years old and was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. Elsewhere at the same site about 30 Venus figurines were found of the kind produced by the Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe. The remains were excavated by Russian archaeologists over a 20-year period ending in 1958 and stored in museums in St. Petersburg.” – New York Times

This selection gives us a great deal of information, from what the boy actually looked like, to some of the items he was buried with. There are plenty of curiosities here, and I won’t have the space in a single post to detail them all.

But in the context of this piece, the interesting part is how his DNA shares traits with both Western Europeans, as well as Native American’s. This shows long migration routes all across the ancient world stretching from Western Europe to Asia and beyond. In addition, unlike some of the other sites I have discussed on this blog, the Mal’ta Boy was found with an assortment of other objects. Context is everything in archaeology, and it is the context that the boy was found it that tells us a lot about how he lived and the people he spent his life with.

I made no secret of the fact that I used some of the finds from Mal’ta as inspiration for the previous story in this series. Unlike the finds of femurs, or teeth, when archaeologists come across finds like Mal’ta, they tell us a great deal. Here is just a brief example from the New York Times article;

The Mal’ta people built houses that were partly underground, with bone walls and roofs made of reindeer antlers. Their culture is distinguished by its many art objects and its survival in an unforgiving climate.” – New York Times

And at least one of my ancestors was there, living in one of those houses. That is something that is kind of mind blowing to think about. I would have been related to both his parent’s as well, and this young boy would have likely been raised in a village/tribe of hunter-gatherer’s in ancient Siberia.

But before I digress too much, there are some important elements of this story that still need to be told. The Mal’ta Boy is but one link in a chain, of a long migration route across the ancient world, and across the Beringian land bridge and into North America. I did say we were heading east after all.

Here is a quote from the New York Times;

The other surprise from the Mal’ta boy’s genome was that it matched to both Europeans and Native Americans but not to East Asians. Dr. Willerslev’s interpretation was that the ancestors of Native Americans had already separated from the East Asian population when they interbred with the people of the Mal’ta culture, and that this admixed population then crossed over the Beringian land bridge that then lay between Siberia and Alaska to become a founding population of Native Americans… “ -New York Times

Which is where we are heading next with this series, across the Beringian land Bridge and into North America. But that is the next chapter of this series.

Over the ocean and through the woods, to the Clovis Culture we go…

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

There are plenty of other goodies to be found out in internet land! I have included a couple more articles here that I did not specifically reference in my post. Enjoy!

Nature

BBC

Siberian Times

New York Times

Wikipedia (Mal’ta-Buret Culture)


Walking with the Ancestors Part 4-A

In the last chapter of this series I discussed some of the finds around in the Altai Mountains in modern day Siberia, dated between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. The oldest of these two finds was a neanderthal woman, who lived some 50 kya. The other find was a little girl, a Denisovan, who had lived sometime around 30 kya. Between the two of them, we see a continuity among my ancestors, who were in the area for at least twenty thousand years. As I pointed out in the comments of Chapter 3C, there was also the remains of a dog found in a nearby cave.

For this chapter I want to continue our journey, but before I do I think it is important to recap a little bit about how the world looked around 50 kya. First off, as was evident from the last chapter in this series, our H.Sapiens ancestors migrated out of Africa and into a world already inhabited by other homins. The most prominent of these was the Neanderthals, who had a range that stretched from western and northern Europe, down through the Middle East and into East Asia.

220px-Range_of_Homo_neanderthalensis

Approximated Neanderthal Range, from Wikipedia Commons

In addition to the Neanderthals, there were others species/sub-species of homin in the area as well. The Denisovans are a notable examples of course, but there may have been others as well. It is important to note that these debates are ongoing within anthropological and archaeological disciplines. In short, the jury is still out.

450px-Spread_and_evolution_of_Denisovans

The spread of Denisovans, Neanderthals and Modern Humans, from Wikipedia Commons

350px-Weichsel-Würm-Glaciation

The extent of the Weishselian glaciation (Europe), from Wikipedia Commons

The world was filled with homins as Modern Humans spread out from Africa over the millenia. More than this though, the world was also covered in ice. The Weishselian glaciation, which lasted from 115,000 BP to about 10,000 BP. For over a hundred thousand years, while the Neanderthals roamed southern Europe and our ancestors came out to meet them, most of the northern parts of the globe were covered in an untold amount of ice and snow. This is the world our ancestors lived in.

From about 50 kya years ago down to about 10 kya years the world was in the time period known as the Upper Paleolithic, and it was a time of a flourishing of art and artifacts across the world. Modern humans spread across the globe, leaving behind them a host of rock art, cave paintings, and tools of all sorts, made of bone and flint in an increasing variety and sophistication.

Which brings us to the next part of our journey, around 45,000 years ago. Here I match with a male in Ust-Ishim, in modern day Siberia. This find is a bit to the west of the Altai Mountains.

Altai-UstIshimMap

Altai-UstIshimLegend

In 2008 the Russian artist Nikolai V. Peristov was searching for ivory to make carvings out of along the river banks of Irtysh near the town Ust’-Ishim in Siberia.

Instead of ancient ivory he discovered something even more magnificent: a 45.000 year old male thigh-bone, a femur.” From Science Nordic

This was how the story of the Ust Ishim man began, and after a few hand offs find made its way into the hands of the experts at the Max Plank Institute, and one man who is one of the leading experts in the field of ancient DNA, a Swedish man by the name of Svante Pääbo. If you recall, he was also one of the leading experts behind the sequencing of the neanderthal DNA at Denisova.

The Ust Ishim man was a spectacular find, because it only added to the work that Dr. Pääbo had already done;

Pääbo’s team of scientists have previously mapped the genome of our closest relatives, the Neanderthal, from 50,000 year old bones. Their studies have shown that our ancestors had children with the Neanderthals during their migration to Europe. This means that all people outside Africa today carry about 2 percent Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

It has been estimated that this intimate meeting took place between 37,000 and 86,000 years ago, but with the new information from the Siberian man from Ust’-Ishim, this has been narrowed down to 50.000-60.000 years ago.

The scientists found that the Ust’-Ishim mans genome contained Neanderthal segments that are 2-4 times longer than in us today. This allowed them to calculate that the Neanderthal DNA was introduced between 232 and 430 generations earlier.” From Science Nordic

The reasons that DNA varies so much over time is because that it is constantly being reshuffled each time a new generation is conceived. As the New York Times puts it, it is kind of like the shuffling of a deck of cards;

During the development of eggs and sperm, each pair of chromosomes swaps pieces of their DNA. Over the generations, long stretches of DNA get broken into smaller ones, like a deck of cards repeatedly shuffled. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthal DNA became more fragmented.

Dr. Paabo and his colleagues predicted, however, that Neanderthal DNA in the Ust’-Ishim man’s genome would form longer stretches. And that’s exactly what they found. “It was very satisfying to see that,” Dr. Paabo said.” From New York Times

So, unlike myself, the Ust Ishim Man had traces and much longer of segments of neanderthal DNA in him. Whereas the Neanderthal DNA has been reshuffled in me countless times, the Ust Ishim man was a lot less removed from the events of interbreeding.

That being said, I have a lot more in common with the Ust Ishim man than I do with the neanderthals…

Ust Ishim Man: 31.5% Match

And with that is where I will leave off with this post. I am trying to dig up more research about what life might had been like around 50 – 40 kya in this region, but so far I have not come up with much. Of course I will keep on digging.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources, References;

Wikipedia (Neanderthals)

Wikipedia (Denisovans)

Wikipedia (Weishselian glaciation)

Wikipedia (Ust-Ishim Man)

Wikipedia (Upper Paleolithic)

New York Times

Science Nordic


Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-C

. The boy returned back to the fire once more, and was dismayed when he saw an old man sitting there.

“Come boy, and sit by the fire.” The old man said. The boy did as he was told, and sat down and warmed himself. It was a welcome contrast to the cold of the night.

“Would you tell me the story?” The boy asked. The old man smiled and nodded.

“I will tell you a story, though it is a long one. It begins long before the ancestors of our ancestors ever walked the land or swam in the water. That is because the story of this place starts at the beginning of time. There was a time when there was no light or land, before there was a single tree or the sky had come into being. In that time, there was nothing but blackness and an endless bitter cold.” The old man said.

“I have already heard this story.” The boy said.

“But you have not heard it from me. It was dark because there was not yet any light in the sky. No stars shone in the blackness, not at first anyways. Then it was that fire spread across the sky, a thousand thousand fires in the night sky. They are the campfires of the old people, and that is where they lived.” The old man said, gesturing to all the stars in the sky.

The boy noticed that two other lights had appeared outside the fire. With a chill of fear, he also realized that these were not lights, but the shining eyes of a wolf. The old man must have seen the wolf as well, because he gestured to it.

“Come old friend, and sit by the fire.” The old man said.

“That is a wolf!” The boy said, in terror.

“That she is, but of no concern to you. She has come to listen to the story.” The old man said with a smile.

“Though I have heard it many times in my long years.” The she-wolf said as she strode up to the fire. The boy saw that she was mostly grey and black, though with white around her muzzle and under her belly. She had the same aged, weary look of the old man.

“Yes, we have told many stories together, though now our time grows short.” The old man said.

The wolf curled up near to the fire, and the old man continued with the story.

“The fire people spread across the sky, and so it was that the fire people came into the empty space, and thought it a fine place to build a home for their children. So it was that the fire people set to work, and the burning heart of this world was forged by their hands. They found it to be a good home, and they multiplied.

Yet, the sky was still mostly dark, and in the places the stars did not light, it was still very cold. That is where the people of shadow and ice dwelled, in the cold places beyond the stars. The ice people saw what the fire people were doing, and found it a very curious thing. So they came by for a closer look.

It happened that the sons of fire found the daughters of ice to be beautiful beyond compare, and they sought them out eagerly. It came to pass that sons of fire courted and wooed the daughters of ice, and settled down to start families with them.

They had many children, diverse in form and kinds. There were many peoples born to ice and fire, and I will not name them all. However, among their children is the land, which came into being when the fire cooled because of the ice. The sky too came into being, from all the steam and smoke that came from the union. Great rivers of water, lakes and seas, these too were the children of Ice as it melted and warmed.” The old man said.

“That is how the land, lakes and sky came into being.” The she-wolf said.

“What about the plants and animals?” The boy asked.

“I will tell you of these things. As I have said, ice and fire had a great many children, and those children went on to have more children of their own, and fire, ice, land, lake and sky we count among the oldest of our ancestors. As such great many peoples spread across the world, and they were very diverse indeed. Life itself spread across the world, with many branches. Plants were among the oldest. Small plants, such as grass and flowers, and great trees as well spread across the world.

Animals came in time too, some that fed upon the plants, and some that fed upon one another. Animals of all kinds were counted among the children of the world, and the people of plants and animals multiplied.” The old man said.

The young boy turned to the wolf.

“Is that how you got here?” The boy asked. The wolf looked at the boy and nodded, and then she spoke.

“The story of my people starts just as the old man has said. Those of my kin are counted among the descendants of the land, and of the trees and forests. The first of our kind were born to the forests, and we multiplied and spread across the world. My kindred are counted among many different tribes, Grey ones such as myself, Red far to South, White far to the North, and many others besides.

From the beginning the first of our kind has kept watch on all their descendants. Our ancestors are still with us, and they teach us the old ways. The ways of the forest, the hunt, and the ways of the four legged. Those are the ways we lived by long before your people came into being, and that is when things started to change.” The she-wolf said.

“When my people came to be?” The boy asked.

“Yes, and that is a story worth recounting as well.” The old man cleared his throat and continued.

“The story of our people young man starts like that of all others on this world. From the oldest of people, we trace our descent. We are a young people in this world, far older are the ancestors of the Wolf, and older still the trees and the land.

The land is the ancestors of our ancestors, and the peoples of the land have long been tied to us. We were hunters, and we knew the ways of the land and the water. We hunted for our food in the vast forests, fished in the lakes and seas, and foraged for plants of all kinds.” The old man said.

“It was in those days that we knew you as brother and sister, and we looked upon one another as equals. We were hunters, kin bound by blood and bone.” The she-wolf said. The old man nodded.

“There is an old story that tells of the bond between man and wolf. A Hunter was out on the trail, and got separated from his companions. He got lost in the woods, and traveled for days trying to find his way. He wandered into a strange area, and soon found himself growing hungry and tired. He finally sat down to have a rest, and fell into a deep sleep.

When he awoke, a large wolf was standing over him. He panicked and reached for his knife, but he had left it far away from where he slept. Besides, the wolf was already upon him, and he would have no chance of fighting off such a large wolf with his bare hands. He fully expected to die.

But the wolf did not strike, just starred. The hunter and the wolf met the gaze of one another, and saw deep into one another spirits. There, the two of them recognized kindred, and saw one another has being more alike then different. Both were hunters, both loved their families.

So it was that a ancient oath was made, and the wolf taught the hunter his ways, and the hunter taught the wolf in return. The two of them became like brothers, and went together wherever they went. The dogs with us today are the descendants of that old promise, though they are far removed from the ancestors of their ancestors.” The old man said. The she-wolf picked up the story.

“But that is not where it ended…” The she wolf-said.

Commentary;

This is in fact an older story I once wrote for a wolf anthology, but alas it was rejected. But it no small way, it has found a new home here. For that reason it does differ in form a little bit from the previous stories in this series. As I have explained before, some of this in inevitable, because the focus and perspective of each story is a little different. This one is told by an old man, and so his telling is different. There is also the she-wolf, and her perspective is also different, and so are her stories.

However, one of the reasons I am including this story in this series is because of the Altai mountains. In Razboinichya Cave, there was found a dog-like canid dated to about 33,000 years ago. It was determined through genetic testing that this canid was closer to modern day dogs than the ancestral wolves from which dogs descended from. The time range we are talking about in this chapter is from about 50 kya to about 30 kya, so I felt this was a fitting addition to this series.

Thanks for reading!

 

Sources, references;

Wikipedia (Altai Mountains)


Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-B

The two hunters slowly made their way across the steep mountain pass. The mountains rose up to their right, and over the precipice to their left, lay the forested valleys far below them. The winds blew across the exposed mountains, and the hunters wrapped themselves tighter in their furs.

The old ones of their village had told them stories about their ancestors, how one generation after another they had moved north in search of new more verdant lands. In the ancient days, the old ones had said, they had lived far to the south in lands warm and lush. But some had said that those lands had become too crowded, and there had not been enough food. Others had said that it was the sky that called to them, and they walked out of that land in order to find where the land touched the sky.

The first hunter turned to the second and smiled.

“Do you think we will be able to touch they sky soon brother?” He said. His younger brother smiled.

“This place is certainly as near to the sky as I have ever been.” The younger of the two replied.

“Yet, the sun does not seem any closer. It is almost as if we are farther from it now.” The older brother said.

“I would think so. The days are colder than I remember.” The younger brother confirmed.

Around the edge of the mountain, the older brother found new signs of their prey, tracks in the soil that covered the mountain. The older brother looked out to the mountains beyond. High above them shone the white capped peaks in the distance. He had always loved just looking at the mountains, as the green cloaks slowly gave way to white as they great peaks reached for the sky. The hunters were still firmly in that green cloak, and grass and trees spread out all around them.

The younger brother squatted over the tracks, and traced his fingers around them. The older brother smiled. His younger sibling had become quite the tracker since becoming an adult just the winter past. He would never admit it, but he figured his brother was already a better track than himself.

“The horned one (1) passed this way not too long ago, it should be close.” The younger brother said.

“Then now is the time for quiet.” The older brother said, and he set out moving slowly towards the trees around the side of the mountain. The horned ones loved the higher parts of the mountains, and they were fast and sure footed even on the steepest of slopes. If the brothers hoped to get one with their spears, they would have to catch it unaware. Otherwise, it would sprint across the mountains and they would loose it.

The younger brother took the lead as they tracked the horned one, but luck was not in their favor. As they emerged from some cover, the horned was was there waiting for them. The younger brother’s eyes went wide as he saw the animal, and he realized a little late that the two of them were blocking it’s only way of escape. The horned one charged, and the younger brother jumped out of the way. He tumbled to the side, and pan iced as his feet hit loose gravel instead of grassy soil. He lost his footing and the ground slid out from under him, and in another heartbeat you would have slid right off the edge of the cliff.

The older brother had had a little more warning than his sibling, and had an easier time dodging out of the way of the horned one as it quickly ran off beyond their reach. The older brother had seen his sibling fall, and he ran to catch him before he went over the edge of the cliff. When his own feet hit the gravel, he had to struggle to keep his own footing, and realized with horror that he could not have reach his brother in time.

He shouted as the younger man went over the edge of the mountain.

The young man lost sight of his brother as he passed over the ledge and tumbled down the long slope that followed. For that much he had to be thankful, as a sheer drop would have killed him instantly. He slid down the slope as the gravel tore at his skin and only made him slide faster. He had little time to look around before the slope came to a stop among much larger rocks. Pain racked his body, and he heard a loud snap as he collided with the rocks and tumbled some more before coming to a stop against the side of a cliff.

Pain shot through his left leg, and blood ran down his forearms. He took one deep breath, and then another. He cried in pain and longing for his brother.

“I am going to die here.” He sobbed to himself. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but the blackness slowly took him.

When he next opened his eyes, he realized instantly that he was not in the same place he fallen. He could hear voices around him (2), but he did not understand them. He glanced around, and came to the conclusion that he was in a cave, and that there was a fire somewhere near by. Light and shadows danced across the cave around him.

There were faces as well, and these frightened him. The faces he could see were broad, with large ridges above the eyes. One of these faces however over him, staring right back into his eyes. He had heard the other hunters tell stories about these people. The other hunters had said they were strong and could rip a person in half. Some said that they were stupid, and could not even speak. All they did was crush things, and some of the hunters even said they would catch people and eat them.

Tears ran down his eyes.

“Please don’t eat me.” The young man said. The face above him seemed startled for a moment, and then smiled. That is when the young man realized that the face over him was probably a woman.

She touched him low on his body, and more pain streaked through his body. She had touched his left leg, and he know knew it was surely broken. The woman started to touch other parts of his body, and he was pleased when only a few areas were really painful. The woman muttered something that he did not understand.

He titled his head to the right, and saw that a good portion of his chest had been wrapped in leather, and some kind of crushed plant. He was happy when he saw his right arm rise, and he gestured at the wraps.

“Did you do this?” He said, tapping his chest. The broad face started at him for a long moment. Then she tapped a finger on his chest. He flinched a little bit. He took the gesture as a ‘yes’.

The world faded in an out over the next few days. With each turn of the sun, those days turned into weeks, and then into months. The young man met many others as they came and went from the cave, and one day at a time he started to pick up little bits of their language. He learned their ways, and over time started to love them.

He also came to love her, the first face he had awoken to. He wanted to stay with them, with her, and so he stayed.

And in time a child was born…

Notes;

(1) From Wikipedia (Altai Mountains), it is stated that the climate in the Altai mountains has been relatively stable since the last ice age. As a result, it has also retained a lot of ice age fauna (minus mammoths and other extinct creatures). I figured the Siberian Ibex would make a good choice of prey.

(2) There is still some debate about whether or not Neanderthals could actually speak in the same way we do. I took a creative liberty in this case.

Commentary;

I could have fleshed this one out a lot more had I chosen too. You might think it has a bit of an abrupt ending, and this is deliberate in this case. I had to bring it to an end, otherwise it would have quickly exceeded an easily readable size. I do try to limit the length of my individual posts on this blog. Also, if you really like this kind of story, may I recommend Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. While I am not a huge fan of the later books in the series, I highly recommend Clan of the Cave Bear for a good all around neanderthal/human story.

You also might have noticed that this one departed from the general format I have used for the previous stories. I really considering making it another story of a boy sitting around a fire with an old woman. But it some ways, I felt that that format would be a little too much “once upon a time” in feeling. I choose this one because this is not a story of some far off time before humans or any kind of people to witness it. I actually share part of my genetic code with some of the fossils that were found in that cave. My ancestors were actually there, actually experienced what it was like in those days. And so I choose to make this a much more “in the moment” kind of story.

Who knows, maybe I am just conjuring up buried ancestral memories from some young hunter buried deep in my genetic code?

Maybe not.

All the same, I hoped you enjoyed this one, and hope you join me in the next chapter of this series as we explore another site and another of my distant ancestors.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources and references;

Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel.

I also referenced many of the sources from part A of this chapter for inspiration.


Walking with the Ancestors Part 3-A

In the last part of this series, we started to talk about Homo erectus, one of our earlier hominid ancestors, and the first one to go global. H. erectus emerged in Africa about 2 million years ago, and from there spread out across the globe. Skeletons have been found in Africa as early as 300,000 years ago. Homo erectus skeletons are found in Asia from 1.8 mya ago to about 300 Kya. In Europe we find skeletons dating from about 800,000 – 300,000 years ago.

The reason these skeletons are so important is because H. erectus is ancestral to two populations that are very important to this series; ourselves, Homo sapiens, and a cousin population in Homo neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals,

There is a lot I am skipping over here, and plenty of details that have to be omitted for brevity reasons. Suffice to say, that somewhere around 350Kya, Homo sapiens emerged out of Africa and began their long trek across the globe. At the same time in Europe and into East Asia, arose the Neanderthals.

Which brings us down to about 50,000 years ago, in a world covered in ice (at least in the north), and with two kinds of hominids living side by side in Europe. It is here we get to the real marrow of this series, where I actually start talking about my own ancestors, as revealed through genetic testing. At this point it is important to make a distinction about what kind of genetics we are talking about, because there are three “kinds” that are often discussed in these conversations; Y-chromosomal DNA, Mitochondrial DNA, and autosomal DNA.

Y-Chromosomal DNA is pretty self explanatory, as it comes from the Y Chromosome found in males, and is used to trace a straight line through ones paternal ancestry, father – grandfather – great grandfather and so on.

Mitochondrial DNA is also pretty straight forward, it is extracted from the DNA of mitochondria, the “power plants” of our cells. This type of DNA is inherited through the maternal line only, mother – grandmother – great grandmother. You get the idea.

I have had testing done on both of the former two types, but I am not going to talk about these just yet. Because, I will be talking about Autosomal DNA, which comes from the autosomes, the first 22 bases pairs of chromosomes in our genetic material. It excludes chromosome 23, because this is is often to referred to as the “sex chromosome”. In males, it is a Y, in females an X. This chromosome is not included in autosomal testing.

The reason I will be talking about autosomal first is because in many ways it is the most comprehensive. While the Y testing can tell me about my paternal line, and the mitochondrial can tell me about my maternal line, autosomal DNA can tell me about my ancestors across ALL lines in my ancestral lineage. This is done by comparing my own DNA with other known samples, either from living people or from DNA extracted from ancient skeletons. I’ll let you guess which we will be talking about.

Which brings us to my first 2 matches, from 50 kya and 30 kya ago. And as you may have already guessed, these matches are from a Neanderthal and a Denisovan skeleton. The location is in the place now known as the Denisova Cave, in Altai Mountains, Siberia.

Altai

(Location Approximated)

Really, in so many ways the Denisova Cave is a tale of three different hominins. (2) Modern humans on one hand, and also the Denisovans and Neanderthals. Seriously folks, I have included plenty of links at the bottom for those that are curious. Wikipedia is good for a general overview of course, but it’s real value lies in the bibliographies on these pages. Those can lead to other websites as well as academic literature on these subjects.

I digress a little bit. In this cave were found numerous fossils from all three hominins, and a few of these fossils still contained viable DNA, which was tested and eventually released publicly. Most of the DNA for the Denisovan came from a small bit of bone, a part of the pinkie. It had once belonged to a little girl. The Neanderthal DNA came from a toe bone, and it belonged to a female.

Once the data was made available to the public, it was possible to compare to that of living people. People like myself. That is how my own DNA, and my own ancestry came into the picture; behold!

50 kya Altai Neanderthal match; 2.47 % (1)

30 kya Altai Denisovan; 1.93%

And that is where I am going to leave this part of the series. Seriously folks, there is a ton of information out there if you are curious about these things. Of course, I am always open for questions and will answer them to the best of my ability.

Thanks for reading!

Notes;

  1. Using “total shared DNA” calibration in the Ancient Calculator tool.

  2. A note on language use. You will see me vary between using the term “hominid” and “hominin”. Both are in fact accurate in this sense, but “hominid” refers to the family Homindae, which includes the great apes. It is a “wide use” term, whereas “hominin” is more restrictive, and refers mostly to the members of genus Homo, that is humans and our closest relations.

Sources and references;

Essentials of Physical Anthropology: Discovering our Origins. By Clark Spencer Larsen

Wikipedia (Human Evolution)

Wikipedia (Neanderthals)

Wikipedia (Denisovan)

Wikipedia (Upper Paleolithic)

Wikipedia (Altai Mountains)

National Geographic 

BBC

The Guardian