Sunday, November 20, 2011

Denisovan DNA, Neanderthals and Bruce Trigger

Neanderthal Ancestor?
No, that's not me on the left - but there are days when I feel like that.

In fact, that Neanderthal gentleman may be one of my remote ancestors.

But first, a short story -

I was a serious, archives-haunting, microfilm-scrolling genealogist for some years before I was a university undergraduate.  I had the charts and family group sheets to prove it.

Of course, way back then, I viewed the world through the eyes of someone raised in the western/ European tradition, and had little knowledge of other non-Western kinship systems.  It took a university professor – the brilliant Bruce Trigger – to open my eyes to the myriad possibilities of the word “family.”

Dr. Trigger (1937 – 2006) was an anthropologist and ethnohistorian.  When he taught me the basics of anthropology way, way back in 1964, he had just arrived at McGill University with a brand-new Ph.D.  His background was in ancient African (Nubian) cultures, and his best work, on the Huron of North America, was still yet to come.

The anthropology course itself was new – so new that it didn’t even have a text.  Just Dr. Trigger’s handouts and reading lists.

Dr. Trigger wasn’t a genealogist, but as an ethnohistorian and anthropologist,  he took the broad idea of family seriously.  He pointed out that the word means wildly different things in different cultures.  People who are “closely related” in one culture might not be so in another culture. Biological relationships are not necessarily family relationships.  In other words, “families” are largely artificial constructs, varying from time to time and culture to culture.  This was all heady stuff.

Moreover, those artificial cultural definitions were also used to define exactly who was an eligible marriage partner and who wasn’t.  The further back in time the discussion went, the murkier things got.  People mated for all kinds of reasons and didn’t necessarily become “family” by so doing.

This, of course, was well before the DNA concept had taken hold in both anthropology and genealogy.  Work on historic family/genetic relationships was still largely based upon eliciting information from “informants”, especially in cultures where there are not written texts.

I spent part of that year researching and writing about the marriage customs and family definitions of a small group of islanders who lived in the Solomon Islands on a small atoll called Tikopia.   The talented and very long-lived New Zealand ethnologist and anthropologist Raymond Firth (1901 - 2002) had written the definitive work on the islanders, called We, the Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia.

Over the months, I practically memorized the book in its entirety.

In a way, it was probably the most important “genealogy training manual” that I ever studied, largely because it forced me to re-examine all those things that I thought were “universal”, but turned out not to be.  (as an aside - Firth, an eclectic researcher, had been the research assistant to Sir James Fraser, author of The Golden Bough – the Modern Library edition of which I read several years before taking Bruce Trigger’s  anthropology course.)

Anyway, one of the things that Bruce Trigger taught me was to be open to new ideas of family and new discoveries.  Just because “everyone” has always “believed” something doesn’t necessarily make it “true” – just “commonly believed.”  There’s a big difference between the two concepts.

So, here it is, 47 years later.   Bruce Trigger died five years ago at sixty-nine.  However, like most great teachers, his influence lives on.  His students remember. Every time I see something new and startling in the field of anthropology/ archaeology/ ethnology – especially something that will eventually shake things up – I think of Dr. Trigger.

Lots of genealogists will pass over the article below from last week’s Discover magazine that I’ve linked to as being a topic too remote, too far back.  It doesn’t have any bells and whistles and there’s no technology angle.  But still, it’s something that Dr. Trigger would have latched onto, brought into class and turned his students loose in a class discussion.  He would have asked, “How does this change things?” and “How will this change what we think we know about our own past and heritage?

Take a look and decide for yourself.  It’s about Neanderthal DNA.  And another strain called Denisovan DNA, which is not much talked about.  In short, it’s about who you are.   Here’s the link.

Bruce Trigger would have loved it.

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