Following on from that Nature feature on human migration I blogged about  a couple of weeks ago, is another interesting piece in Science provocatively titled: “Busting myths of origin.” It is, however, exactly as the title says: analysis of DNA and isotopes in bones and teeth is showing that most of the people of the world are the products of multiple migrations: there are no “pure” peoples of any kind, with the exception of a very few groups, notably the indigenous Australian Aborigines, who, largely through accidents of geography and circumstance, remained isolated from many other human groups for a relatively long time. Migration and mingling, it turns out, is the norm for our species.

“We can falsify this notion that anyone is pure,” says population geneticist Lynn Jorde of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Instead, almost all modern humans “have this incredibly complex history of mixing and mating and migration.” Wind back the clock more than a thousand years—a trivial slice of time compared with the 200,000 years or so since our species emerged—and stories of exclusive heritage or territory crumble. “Basically, everybody’s myth is wrong, even the indigenous groups’,” says population geneticist David Reich of Harvard University.

It’s quite fascinating, for a small piece: there are expected conclusions, such as that there are no such people as pure “Aryans”: white Europeans have a mixed ancestry based on three waves of ancient migrations between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago (to say nothing of more recent migrations – see timeline below). Unless you’re a white supremacist, you probably already accepted that. There are also less expected ones: Basques are no more unique than any other group of Europeans; there is not really such a thing as a “Celtic” genetic identity, it is purely a cultural distinction, and Anglo-Saxons and native Britons (both anyway a product of previous migrations) mingled their DNA quite substantially. The notorious Philistines contributed their DNA to both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. Kashmiris have nothing to do with Alexander the Great.

Origin timeline - Copy
Ann Gibbons, Science magazine, 2017

It is interesting in itself, but what fascinates me is this seeming contradiction: it is clear, from the very origin of our species, that we have had a strong urge to spread out, explore, and migrate. We’ve done it again and again and again. And yet all of us have these myths of origin of where our “people” come from; we like telling it in the tales of our own immediate family histories; we tell it about the groups of people or nations we self-identify with; we are fascinated by those ancestry tracing programmes and intrigued by DNA kits that tell us we are “30% Viking.” A substantial part of the USA’s self-image is that of the nation of self-made migrants, the melting-pot of cultures and peoples. Perhaps most of all, we tell it in our stories.

We even tell it in stories about peoples from other imagined worlds. Think how much of Tolkien’s backstory is origin myths, like those sailors of Numenor who later colonised Middle Earth and led to the great “kingdoms of Men” there. In science fiction, it’s not just there in the vast glut of work looking at human exploration and encountering – and often warring with – alien or other human cultures. Indeed, it is worth considering in the possibilities for alien species that this drive simply won’t be there. Maybe aliens haven’t contacted us because they have no urge to leave their backyard.

There is also a lot of SF that focuses on origin myths: Earth as the homeworld, and how often migrant peoples are searching for their lost/stolen home of origin. It feels like a massive psychological contradiction – the drive to migrate, versus the desire to belong. Perhaps some of it, at least, is so that we can lay claim to a land that, deep down, didn’t use to be “ours”. Maybe, in the case of Europeans and their descendants, it hearkens back to our ancient displacement of the Neanderthals and other hominids. Although, of course, we interbred with them too. Perhaps it is because of our prolific tendency to create huge and diverse forms of culture, which we must then learn to understand every time we encounter another group, unless we destroy it. Whatever the reasons, it tells us something interesting about ourselves.

 

Reference and source of figures

Gibbons, 2017. Busting myths of origin. Science 19 May 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 678-681. DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6339.678

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