Sunday, March 31, 2019

It's All About Me



It’s All About Me

It happened at Christmas, that special time of joy, goodwill, and gift giving.  In fact, the event was a gift to me from my daughter, Jamie.  This year’s craze, it appeared, wasn’t for the latest American Girl doll or the newest in the line of Xboxes and video games.  No, the hype, continually perpetuated on TV, was all about your heritage and ancestry.  There had been talk of it, a word here and there, so I knew what was coming.  Something about “exploring your personal genetics”.  You guessed it, it was a DNA (Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid) analysis to make things exciting, just a smidgen
A DNA Helix
more exciting than they usually are around here.  The genetic revolution had arrived, for me at least, and as I used to hear blundering Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) weekly exclaim on TV’s “The Life of Riley” when I was much younger lad, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  And to think, here I was taking a DNA test and I wasn’t some suspected criminal whose DNA might solve a crime, but then I guess the question was, what was I?  Just how much would my home-brewed genealogy trail compare with the precision of a scientific approach?  
With 31 unmatched socks, I could only imagine how my genes would stack-up.  Was it worth learning more about my roots?  Would I discover I had roots from an entirely different species of tree?  Other than by taking the test, I had no way of knowing.  While 23andMe would decide, I harbored the thought that it might be better not to know. 
The box appeared under the tree.  In due time it found its way to me the usual way, oldest first, followed in sequence down to youngest (lately it seems to always start with me).  We take turns opening our gifts as we go around and around, stopping occasionally to gather-up the wrapping paper or shuffle-off to the kitchen to refill coffee cups.  That way we all get to see each gift, who it came from, sometimes even whether it fits before the next person down the line takes their turn.  Tough on little ones, certainly yes, but before it’s over, they have learned something about patience and the thrill of anticipation.  One Christmas, upon receiving an especially action-packed DVD, we stopped everything to watch it before continuing.  I don’t recall the movie, but that was definitely the Christmas we had dinner in our pajamas. 
Although we didn’t stop for me to immediately take the test, I did look it over, pass it around, and read the enclosed material.  It was weeks later, about the time I took the tree down, before I did the deed and actually took the test.  Not for the dry of mouth, it proved to be a series of saliva samples collected by dribbling into a test-tube thingy until I reached a mark inscribed on the tube.  That was the “Me” part of 23andMe.  The “23” part began when I mailed the kit in for an investigation of my twenty-three helix arranged pairs of chromosomes, 23 from my mom and 23 from my dad.  About three weeks later, the breakdown of my DNA arrived.  No, I didn’t have the breakdown, only a glimpse into my long-in-development pedigree.  In the interim, to heighten my anticipation of what was to come, as the grandchildren had experienced on Christmas morning and somewhat on a par with Publishers Clearing House endless Sweepstake appeals, I received progress reports via email along with offers of additional options for purchase.  Maybe I’d discover something about myself, learn of my roots, but they’ll never let me forget that I’m a consumer.
Mom's Parents and Siblings
I was Italian, sure I was.  I’d had to prove my Italian lineage to qualify for my Italian EU passport, but there was more.  My height and blue eyes had to come from somewhere and so they did.  The earliest known relative on my mother’s side lived 16 generations ago.  Her name was Marie Labrecque and she was born in France in 1435.  Before that, the trail of my family tree, along with details of its genetic fingerprint, seems to have petered-out and remained a mystery.  On my dad’s side, my history is far shorter.  It’s out there of course but as yet remains unknown before my Italian great grandparents.  My great grandparents, Francesco and Giuseppina (Josephine), were born in 1845 and 1846 respectively in the little Italian town of Cadegliano.  Cadegliano lies in the northern Italian province of Lombardy near the Italian shores of Lake Lugano, which forms part of the Italian-Swiss border.  No doubt, the ensuing destruction of official records from frequent wars, the loss of family lineage preserved in home bibles, and the fading of both oral history and memory with the passage of time took their toll.  With a deeply rooted French bloodline on my mom’s side and my dad being of first-generation Italian extraction, I had naively anticipated, in hindsight wide of the
Lago Lugano, Northern Italy
 mark,
being a half-blood … a 50% French and 50% Italian mix.  As Jedi master Yoda might say, “Na├»ve, I was”.  I learned, however, that my genetic makeup went much farther back.  In fact, it began, give or take, about 100,000 years ago.

Right out of the starting gate and to my surprise, it appears that my genome markers included Neanderthal variants.  For those of you who just took a step back on hearing this and are relieved we are not related, this implies that I have a direct Neanderthal ancestor - a grandparent 2,000 generations removed.  And here, I thought that all I might need to do would be to swap a French beret for leathery lederhosen like the ancestry TV commercials so playfully do.  From the start, it had turned into an acid trip all right.  Should I seek an immediate second opinion?  There are those who would argue that I fit the mold as an uncivilized, unintelligent, and uncouth knuckle-dragging creature.  Well, we all have to start somewhere!  Neanderthals
A Neanderthal Relative?
intermingled with early humans for about 5000 years before becoming extinct themselves.  Apparently, during that time they got to know each other rather well, that being “well” in a Biblical sense.  I have some of their DNA.  I guess I can forego getting another opinion because apparently, we all do.  Have you taken another step backward in surprise?  It’s a fact.  Somewhere between 1 - 4% of our DNA originates from those
stocky, human subspecie, Neanderthal cavemen.  Thankfully, it didn’t get the better part of me, for while we toyed with the idea of buying a cave grotto in Calitri for our home there, perhaps fulfilling some innate cave dwelling instinct within me I might have identified with, we never did.  What that means is uncertain, but it's fascinating to think that we may have inherited some of our traits, even behaviors, from them.  Fortunately, my Neanderthal derivatives didn’t promote in me pile-driving Popeye arms long enough to drag along, abstained from fostering a receding forehead, and eliminated any chance of prominent brow ridges.  What one of my cave-dwelling ancestors promoted in me was simply less black hair than the average Neanderthal had.  Not a bad trade, although longer arms then average might have promoted me into an NBA career or seen me as a wide receiver in the NFL.  But there was more.
I knew that most recently my Italian DNA, before migrating to North America, resided in the home country.  My mother’s DNA had made the journey to present-day Canada from France centuries earlier.  Like a blended wine in a bottle, it seems that my DNA matured in Northern Europe for some time, since my highest percentage puts me at 38% French-German.  Just maybe, since they couldn’t refine it down to a particular town or valley, I’m at liberty to imagine it originated right on their border.  But since that border in the heart of Europe has been contested and has vacillated for centuries, the rather small area of France and Germany combined may be the best 23andMe could do.  Then again, my ancient forebearers may well have favored the German side of that area.  I chose that side, a spot near Dusseldorf Germany in particular, because of my related Neanderthal ancestry.  The nearby Neander Valley (hence the name Neanderthal) had been a Neanderthal community, although the idea of community may still have been a long time coming.  Could one of my blue painted German relatives, a Gaul, have taken part in Brennus’ sacking of Rome in 387 BCE or again by the Visigoth, Alaric, in 410 CE?  Better still, had one of my distant ancestors been involved in the theft of one of the three legion eagle standards lost in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE?  Then again in my fantasy, it is just as likely that a branch of my tree may have terminated when one of the combatants involved in that battle, whichever side, could have been killed.  With such a wide DNA footprint, how had my forebearers moved about to emerge in Italy?  Whether relatively recent or centuries earlier, somehow, they had.  Clearly a combination of decisions made, others sidestepped, and acts outside of their control all played a hand.
Another surprise in my cultural apportionment was to learn that the next two major adjuncts to my DNA cocktail were Spanish-Portuguese and British-Irish.  Ok, why not let everyone pile-on this scrum?  Again, for what constitutes 12.4% and 7.1% of my DNA make-up, respectively, there was no breakout offered within these two contributions.  Here again, I speculated.  While it would have been a long walk, could one of my ancestors have migrated from the Iberian Peninsula by joining Hannibal following his arrival in Spain before he passed through France and crossed the Alps into Italy in 218 BCE?  More likely, my DNA moved about in stages progressing in many directions, but with notable concentrations along the way.  With thousands contributing to my make-up, many undoubtedly were average Joes and Sallys, maybe they all were.  But then, there may have been some standouts along the line.  Impossible as it may be, I’d love to know every one of their stories, from mundane to spectacular, and from the more recent outright heroism of my French and Italian ancestors who dared to cross the Atlantic.  Especially brave were those on my mom’s side who courageously made the journey in the 1700s.  From there, moving backward from limb, to trunk, to the roots of my family tree, united in common DNA which connects us all, are thousands of lost stories.  The vastness of the past being a fun place to wander, it’s entertaining to perseverate on imagined images and wonder just how I became me, how my DNA arrived in Italy … the chance one of my ancestors intermarried with one of Caesar’s or later Claudius’ legionaries when they invaded the British Isles.  
My paleo past finally caught up to my expectations, validating my sense of “bella figura”, when my only certain national heritage was reported as Italian.  With water on all sides, save for a land portal from the north onto the Italian peninsula, I finally had one clearly defined benchmark.  The European migration of my DNA seems to have ended in southern Europe where I was declared 11.1% Italian.  No questions as to where either - where else but in northern Italy, Lombardy to be exact.  So, there you have it.  All the treks, certainly a few sackings and pillages, outright wars, and no-doubt some peaceful “pack-up and move” migrations, must account for my blue eyes, tall stature, and certainly my “non-Neander black” but when I was young, blondish hair.  I wouldn’t be trading pasta and braciola (bra-cheeo-lay) for wiener-schnitzel and potato salad anytime soon.  In the end, along with a smattering of “Broadly Northwestern European” thrown in for good measure, I wound-up being proclaimed 99.8% European.  But my soup was 0.2% short of complete.  The missing 0.2% broke down to 0.1% Native American (which I already was aware of on my mom’s side) with the remainder a willful invention, “Unassigned”. 
My Dad (far right) with Some of His 
Brothers and Sisters
I’ll gladly make a guess and assign it to some great, great, great, ad infinitum wanderer in my line.  Always on the move, lost in time, without story or name, much like a Johnny Appleseed, I imagine my antecedent instigated a long line of descendants throughout present-day Europe.  Over eons, my “unassigned” ancestor’s actions and those of his issue could have garnished my DNA soup to improve its flavor, a little bit here, a little there, like a genetic Stone Soup for all to partake, myself included.  My DNA, beyond being akin to a computer operating system that oversees my makeup, is also a history book, its narrative the story of the long journey across Europe that has led to me.  Though reluctant at first, taking the test opened my eyes.  I honestly hadn’t been aware of all the outliers that had come together to compose my line.  As a result, I appreciate my ancestors even more.  Each is a part of me. Like taking turns opening gifts under the tree, it’s my turn following the turns of 2000 generation of predecessors.  Hopefully, I’m a worthy keeper of the priceless DNA gift I’ve inherited.  It really isn’t all about me, I’m really all about them, right down to my Neanderthal forerunner who, if he or she accomplished anything, made me possible.


From that Rogue Tourist
Paolo