Just how much do we have in common with our ancestors?


photo: Courtesy of Cary and Kacey Jordan; http://www.thejordancollective.com/

Ever wondered just how much you have in common with your ancestors?  We all – even young adults – know what it’s like to start seeing our parents in ourselves.  You know …. when you react to something a friend says or you say something to one of your children and ZAP!  You just know that you could hear your mother or your father saying that or reacting that way.  And don’t you just find this happening even if that reaction or expression was something that you didn’t particularly like about your mum or dad?

Of course, you’re going to say that we spend so much time with our parents that it’s no wonder this happens. It’s just learned behaviour.  But we spend lot of time with our siblings too but I, for one, never feel that I sound just like my brother.  No that’s not completely true.  There are times, though they’re pretty rare.  But do any of you think you sound like one of your grandparents?  Probably less often.  Of course, they’re another generation removed and we usually haven’t spent as much time with them as we do with our parents. Unless, that is, we’ve grown up in one of those cultures where both parents are busy working or are absent and we’ve been brought up by our grandparents.

But what interests me a more about this is to what extent we have outward, conscious characteristics or other behaviour in common with our more distant ancestors.  And more than that, just how much of what we are, what we know, what we believe, think and do is somehow traceable back to these ancestors.

Indeed, we inherit our genetic structure from our ancestors and the tiny variations in our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid),) that make us who we are, can certainly be traceable back to those ancestors.  DNA is the hereditary material present in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a particular person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA.



In recent years there’s been a lot of research into Mitochondrial DNA: that type of DNA which is only passed on from mothers to their children.  So, it’s a peculiarly female phenomenon – sons can’t pass it on – and variations and markers in MtDNA are used by scientists to trace maternal genealogy down through the centuries and indeed through millennia.  To some extent, the same can be said for the role of Y chromosomes in tracing male genealogy.  Variations and mutations in mtDNA and Y chromosomes can and do occur from time to time, but are rare.  These variants establish markers that can be a distinct and identifiable element of the genetic makeup of women and men living many hundreds of generations ago, but can be identical with that of many adults and children alive today.

That these links actually do exist and that lineage can be traced back in this way is real, though it seems almost science fiction.

How far might genetic links affect our consciousness?

Now comes the hard part.  All this raises another question: just how complex and meaningful are these genetic links and what are their implications?

Could they be, in some people, the basis for the transmission of some form of knowledge, insight or some degree of genetic memory?  I don’t believe that babies, like that beautiful little one pictured above, are born with minds like an unformatted hard disk drive.  In other words, it cannot be that there is absolutely nothing in a baby’s brain – neither memories nor instincts or whatever you want to call them – just because science has not yet identified them.  And if there is something present in a baby’s consciousness, then leaving divine intervention aside, where-else could it have come from than the genetic databank that they were born with?

If this is so, could we have some awareness or “memory” of the lives lived in the past by other people with whom we have intimate genetic links? This may be merely some insight into those ancestors’ beings or some empathy or identification with them; or possibly, an ephemeral sharing of moments in the lives of those ancestors can exist through these genetic links.  We must ask ourselves: can knowledge and memories somehow be imbued into the genes or the genetic make-up of humans and then passed on over generations?

While we all share genetic links with our ancestors, not everyone is aware of them and some people may be more sensitive to these links than others, just as there are a number of documented cases of children with an uncanny knowledge of the lives of persons who have passed on well before they were born.  Of course when you hear these stories, there are many sceptics and science demands that we be sceptical but it also demands that we keep an open mind.

Ethnic groups with more enhanced genetic links

Now there seem to be certain ethnic groups where this genetic link may be purer, more acute or identifiable and more direct than for others.  Notably these include certain families of Lebanese origin, whose ancestors were the Phoenicians and Canaanites living in the great middle-eastern melting pot of civilization at the time of the genesis of monotheism and other major cultural advances some four or five thousand years ago.  In this part of the world, hatreds and ‘tit-for-tat’ violence have trickled down through generations over thousands of years, perhaps founding many of the apparently irrational conflicts still going on today.

There is also the Basque people from the eastern corner of the north coast of Spain and south-west France, whose ethnic identity and genealogy were insulated and isolated through millennia by simple but significant geographical and cultural barriers.  The unique nature of the Basque language and ethnicity, with their roots in the dimness of their own antiquity may also be emblematic of modern Basque social conflict with its controversial origins and complicated and often fratricidal extremes.

Though these two ethnic groups may be completely different, I posed myself the question:  could they indeed have come into contact and have mixed their genetic material some three millennia ago?  There is evidence to suggest that this may have occurred, given the seafaring exploits and trading empire of the Phoenicians.  And this gave rise to the further question: would the descendants of this genetic fusion be more likely than most other people to have access to whatever memories of their ancestors’ histories and lives that might have been engendered into their DNA?

With all that in mind, I also thought that significant moments in the histories of these ethnic groups, particularly those involving … birth and death, battles and revenge, murder and survival … could provide a telling back-drop and moving social context within which to explore the implications of genetic memory links between women and men alive today and their far-distant, long-dead ancestors.

Well, all of this has been the inspiration for the historical themes and part of the underlying subject of my novel “Where A Life Begins”, which is as much about human identity and what makes each and every individual who they are, as it is about the grander themes mentioned above.  For anyone who may be interested, “Where a Life Begins” should be available within the next couple of months.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

some other links


One thought on “Just how much do we have in common with our ancestors?

  1. Pingback: Will Serializing A Novel Work? | Gary Heilbronn

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