INTERESTING TIMES: DNA

INTERESTING TIMES

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DNA

DNA

According to legend and history, Hungarians came to Europe as horse-nomads from somewhere in Asia, perhaps the Ural Mountains in Russia, in the ninth century. Most likely, they brought the Hungarian language with them. Hungarian is a non-Indo-European language spoken only by Finns and Estonians, separated thousands of years ago, and now mutually incomprehensible. Hungarians seem to think that their bodies might be special, too, and I often wondered whether my strong black hair and high cheekbones were indicative of this Asiatic background.

So, one day recently, I sent in a bit of saliva to AncestryDNA, much advertised on television, to try to find out where I came from. I was very disappointed by the pie chart I received in return. A little more than 50 percent of my DNA was determined as “Eastern European,” whatever that meant, without specifying, Check, Slovak, Romanian, or Hungarian. There was nothing specifically Hungarian. I was very annoyed with AncestryDNA and complained. A large chunk — close to 20 percent of my DNA — was defined by them as “Western European,” without indicating, French, German, or anything specific. There were small percentages of Iberian, Greek, Italian, Irish, English, and Scandinavian elements — it seemed like I had something of every European nationality.

The most interesting information in the AncestryDNA results was a small percentage of “other” or miscellaneous features. These included 4 percent European Jewish and 2 percent South Indian DNA. The South Indian feature was a riddle, until a friend explained it as “European Gypsy or Roma,” a people in Eastern Europe who came from South India. Evidently one of my ancestors mated with a gypsy. While interesting, none of this information explained my being Hungarian.

Recently, as I was searching for DNA information in general, I came upon a study of Hungarian DNA, after all. According to current research, it would seem that AncestryDNA was right, and there is no Hungarian DNA separate from other Eastern European DNA. Some early Hungarian tombs had bones with tiny bits of Asiatic DNA, but most Hungarians are genetically indistinguishable from other Europeans. That’s that. Evidently the conquering horse-nomads in the nineth century were few in number, and their genes blended in with those of the local population and disappeared. They only managed to keep and disseminate their unusual Hungarian language.

Or did they? There is a controversial alternative to that orthodox theory of bringing the language from Asia in the nineth century. According to some, Hungarian and other agglutinative languages that might have been related to Hungarian, such as Etruscan, Basque and Gaelic, are all remnants of widespread agglutinative languages that existed in Europe prior to the migration of Indo-European speakers. Agglutinative languages create meanings by additions to words, such as suffixes and prefixes. Indo-European languages use lots of little separate words like Latin, English, and Russian. It has been hypothesized that ancient Sumerian was an agglutinative language, perhaps related to the other surviving agglutinative languages, like Hungarian.

If this were the case, then Hungarian DNA and language would match up and come from the same source — ancient Europe, and the legend of the horse-nomad migration would have been of less significance except as temporary history.

Since I am out on a limb with the Sumerians, why not go all the way with the American Indians. American Indians also speak agglutinative languages, which they may have brought with them from Asia 20,000 or more years ago. The ancient language or languages of many First Peoples may have been agglutinative. Hey, I could be speaking an ancient language, at least until the next wave of research. This affects my whole sense of who I am.

Back to DNA.

DNA studies are reevaluating the history of everything. In the case of Hungarians, the issue is the contradiction between language and genes. In the history of early humans, it is the contrast between fossil and DNA evidence. Fossil evidence suggested that there were a number of early humanlike beings between apes and homo sapiens. Each one of these was thought to have been a different species and given a different name — Australopithecus, Homo erectus, or Homo habilis, etc. One developed from the other and became extinct, as newer forms emerged. Very neat.

DNA tells a very different story. Homo sapiens DNA has in it genes from a variety of older species of mankind, proving that these overlapped in time, and that they mated and had children. Homo sapiens is therefore not a pure species, but a hybrid of many species. The emphasis here is on the word hybrid.

Neanderthals merged with Homo sapiens so that we all have about 4 percent Neanderthal genes. Asians have that, too, plus the genes of other early forms in Asia, such as Denisovans. Homo sapiens is mixed with something like half a dozen earlier forms of human. Some of these hybrids went on across the Bering Straits to be American Indians. Some of these earlier genes in Homo sapiens were very valuable in that they helped in adaptation or in resisting illness.

The idea of all of us being hybrids, as promulgated in the PBS First Peoples documentary series on this subject, has a cultural and even political undertone. We are not different species. Diversity is good and intermarriage between people of different kinds is actually beneficial to everybody.

As if hybridity were not enough, recent DNA science suggests that genomes are “webs” or “mosaics” of genes that were not just acquired from the parents “vertically” but during the life of the person, “horizontally.” Many bacteria and viruses in the genome are acquired in life and passed on to the next generation. The writer David Quammen calls this “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.” It begs the question of what a “species” is exactly and the relationship of the individual to the species. I am not just 2 percent gypsy; I am also some percent other, depending on my own history, and not defined exclusively by my parents’ DNA.

The political aspect of this insight is also not hard to see. This vision suggests that we are not examples of species and/or races, but separate individuals down to our genes — hybrids and mosaics. In this view, ethnicities don’t matter at all.

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