Cedar Street Times 11-13-2015
by Patricia Hamilton
In the process of writing my life stories I learned about DNA analysis—a process to determine what we may have gotten from our ancestors—while reading The Social Animal, a book by David Brooks, renowned New York Times columnist and best-selling author. The book’s subtitle, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, refers to five major influences on the formation of our personalities, which Brooks identifies as: DNA, family, cultures, education, and reflection. I had written about the other four. I became curious about the DNA. Why does Brooks believe it’s so important? And what could I possibly learn about my personality formation from my genome? Intrigued, I became hooked on exposing this “Hidden Source” of who I have become.
Soon after this intention, my Guided Autobiography instructor introduced me to Drs. Alexis Bunten and Siamak Naficy, two local cultural anthropologists with a specific interest in DNA analysis and working with people, such as myself, to understand—and be enriched by—its gifts. I already had my and my brother’s genomes sequenced by 23andme.com. I provided the Drs. with the results and they began their work.
Reflections on My Ancient Ancestor “Vi”
In the last column in this series, Alexis and Siamak introduced me to “Vi” (from DNA haplogroup V), my oldest known European female ancestor who lived 16,000 to 12,000 years ago. Haplogroup V is a rare group of people, when compared with how many people are in the other haplogroups (haplogroups pertain to sharing deep ancestral origins dating back thousands of years). Not many V’s survived the incredibly harsh conditions, and those that did had to be resourceful, flexible, and incredibly brave.
Based on scientific and archival evidence, Siamak crafted a narrative of Vi’s life. She lived in Southwest France and her ancestral maternal line is from Cantabria in Northern Spain. He described the local terrain, the primitive culture, and how she and her man hunted for food and moved with reindeer migrations. As Siamak spoke about Vi during our one on one DNA consultation, I closed my eyes and bore witness to Vi living her life. Siamak’s melodic and authentic way of weaving Vi’s story helped me to visualize her movements. He spoke about her as if he knew her well. And so I began to see Vi as a real person too.
I was deeply moved by Siamak’s research and narrative. I felt something within go quiet, a knowing, as I bonded with a woman who existed thousands of years ago. I searched the many rooms in my mind, darting here and there, in the hopes I could give words to how this could happen in an instant. But I didn’t need a reason; I had this knowing.
Vi was a woman very much like myself, engaged in, not only survival in harsh conditions, but in daily activities with such mundane things as finding food, shelter, and clothing. I saw at once that she and I—and all the women between—represent my unbroken ancestral line through generations.
Mystified at this ancestral connection, I wondered what of Vi’s personality traits might have come down through the bloodlines to influence my own.
A Genetic Pre-disposition to Travel?
I saw our first connection when I learned that Vi and her tribe traveled via Turkey and Spain, into France, and on to Europe and England. I’ve traveled and lived in the same countries! A year in Spain, two in the British Isles, a month in Turkey; always traveling by myself and mingling with the local people, intent on knowing about their country and how they live. I spent a month each year, for four years, in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico and seriously considered retirement in that Spanish Colonial “Pueblo Magico.”
Was it a genetic pre-disposition that led me to travel only to those countries where my ancestors lived millennia ago? Or were my travel choices, as I had assumed, solely of my own free will? Moving around as a child, I loved to travel and meet new people, see new places. Always thinking of myself as part gypsy and wished I wore the colorful clothes and traveled in a painted wagon.
Alexis says there is no such conflict, as is often stated, of “Nature (DNA) versus Nurture (life experiences), but that our inclinations and desires are a combination of both. Brooks’ five influences also comprise both nature and nurture.
In traversing from a “genotype” at conception and then moving through the family, cultures, education and reflection of our lives, we morph into a “phenotype,” a composite of an organism‘s observable characteristics or traits.
I love learning the new words of this science: haplogroup, phenotype, genotype, genetic pre-disposition—what more? Even the words reveal volumes about how my personality is formed.
Connecting with the Citizens of Turkey
I took a guided tour through the countryside to Pamukkale and Ephesus, an ancient Greek city of Anatolia. The Library of Celsus, shown here, held 12,000 scrolls and was completed in 135 AD. Walking on those ancient cobblestones amid the ruins, I sensed I had been there before.
While on a bus ride from Izmir to Istanbul, although I couldn’t speak their language, through smiles and gestures I developed a friendship with a mother and her young son. With my iPhone I took a picture of his dangling bare feet, then gave him the phone. He took a picture of his mother’s hands. A little bit later, he shyly crossed the aisle to sit next to me until we reached Troy. There we walked together around the wooden Trojan horse, the one used in the Brad Pitt movie, hugged and waved goodbye. I was nourished by the Turkish people throughout my visit.
More Genetic Pre-dispositions to Be Revealed
Alexis and Siamak have explored my deep ancestry, and will be moving forward in time from these two pre-historic ancestors to finding my family in the Middle Ages, through the early immigrants to this country, and generations of pioneer, and up to the present.
David Brooks on “from the Dead to the Unborn”
As David Brooks said, “The truth is, starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, and a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days, or hours ago, we call education and advice.
“But it is all information, and it all flows from the dead through us and to the unborn. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and its many currents and tributaries, and it exists as a creature of that river the way a trout exists in a stream. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it. So even a newborn possesses this rich legacy, and is built to absorb more, and to contribute back to this long current.” (The Social Animal, The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, pg 32. Random House 2011)
Making It Real
Drs Siamak and Alexis are researching and delivering to me the personalized, long historic flow of information that Brooks mentions. I began my memoir with the intention of grounding my grandchildren in their true, historical identities, and the DNA research done by these kind people is proving to be the most interesting and fruitful way of accomplishing that goal—and of my way to “contribute back to this long current of life.”
The minute Alexis and Siamak described and made Vi real to me, a very long line of shadowy women began dancing towards me. I know Vi existed, because I am here today. I cannot imagine how I will feel when these other women and men dance out from the darkness and become my reality. Stay tuned!
“Rib” My Paternal Ancestor
I’m thankful to David Brooks for his research and book, and to these scientists, Drs Bunten and Naficy, who have chosen to research, analyze and reveal the hidden influences of our DNA.
Next installment, “Rib”, my paternal ancestor, from 12,000 years ago. You won’t want to miss his harrowing tale of courage and revenge.
Patricia Hamilton is owner and publisher of Park Place Publications, 591 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove. She helps authors write and publish books. Affiliate Joyce Krieg is a published author and professional editor. Call or email for a free consultation. 831-649-6640, firstname.lastname@example.org, parkplacepublications.com, keepersofourculture.com.