Monday, August 03, 2009

My Map To Eve or The Human Genographic Project

by Annette Leal Mattern

The National Genographic Project is a DNA mapping program run by National Geographic genetic scientists aimed at discovering how humans populated the world. It is based on findings that all of our genetic roots descend from a woman who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. By studying genetic mutations, scientists are able to track an incredible migration of some 60,000 years ago, extending to every corner of the earth where man has walked. The project charts that journey for different human groups based on changes in their DNA, mapping generation after generation through scientific footprints across countless civilizations and global changes.
As a woman, my mitochondrial DNA would trace my lineage back in time through my mother’s and her mother’s and her mother’s DNA, an unbroken chain of mothers back to “Mitochondrial Eve.” Always fascinated with my anthropological beginnings, I swabbed my cheeks and joined this incredible project. Through the miracle of science and technology, my saliva containing a string of genetic mysteries could now be unlocked, revealing a trail of human determination that started with the mother of us all.

With great anticipation, I awaited the results. I was not disappointed.

Evidently, my ancient ancestors left East Africa and began exploring west around 50,000 years ago during the African Ice Age, when melting ice from Europe made the Sahara a desirable place to live. But that did not last. Future generations encountered relentless droughts, causing them to follow big game and better weather to a new home in Eastern Asia, along the Mediterranean. They were the first Eurasians.
Over the next 5,000 years, my ancestral mothers walked onto the Eurasian and Iranian steppes, a huge grassland rich with antelope and bison. Different languages and customs evolved among the various tribes, forming the earliest of cultures.
Some remained along the Caspian Sea and became the ancient tribes of Persia, while others - pulled by the promise and adventure - traveled deep and wide into the unknown territories.
About 40,000 years ago, the strongest of the hunters (my branch), followed mammoth herds across the Central Asian steppes and found themselves in Siberia. Here they developed more efficient hunting tools and more reliable survival skills. In winters that dropped -40 degrees Fahrenheit, mothers buried their children and then they themselves perished, and many branches became extinct on this trunk of our family tree.

Finally, 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, likely following migrating reindeer herds across a frozen “land bridge” that connected Asia to North America, we came to America. Harvesting the abundance of nature along the coastal waterways or hunting bountiful forests, we came. Building tents on the lush plains or adobe dwellings in the high desert, we came. Domesticating horses and dogs, organizing communities and creating art, we came. And from mother to daughter, the historic teachings of the family were passed on. Each of my ancient mothers giving her milk and her dreams to make each generation a little bit better.

I remember, as a teenager, wondering about my mother and my grandmother. I suppose looking at photos of them since I was a child, I was always fascinated with the notion that they had once been my age thinking the same thoughts I was thinking, curious about my curiosities. Were they ever silly and rambunctious? Did they get the giggles in church? Kiss the boys at the movies? What were their lives like, their fears, their dreams? What caused them to decide one way or another? And, what did they sacrifice for their choices?
By the time I went to college, my grandmother seemed quite ancient. My fascination in knowing who she was as a woman grew into a fixation. I was only now beginning to truly understand that here was a woman who had loved and lost, had laughed and worked and wanted, who had walked a long journey but, aside from some old photographs and family stories, I would never truly know.

When I began writing, I asked my mother to tell me the stories of her childhood. Trying to capture the spirit of her life from as far back as she could remember, I started writing her words in journals so that generations who have not yet been born would know, not just the events, but the people.

I hoped to paint the gist of her so that her great grand children, now toddlers, would know a woman who had grit and stamina and held her family together under circumstances they will never fully understand. It is less about honoring my mother; more about rendering the essence of the woman who caused us to be.

Now, having a glimpse of the journey of all the mothers in my line of women, I hunger to know them, to know their stories. What fears did they have to overcome to leave their homes and venture into the unknown? What strength did they have to muster in order to walk hundreds of miles across scorching heat or bitter cold, with no protective clothing or shelter, gathering when there was nothing to hunt, crying when there was nothing to gather? What dreams did they have of a better life as they nursed their children from empty breasts while building fires and scraping bits of roots for food? What joy did they know? What desire? What love?

What I do know is this: I come from a long line of resourceful, intelligent, creative women who tried again and tried again in the face of incomprehensible hardship until they were able to succeed, for only the successful survived. They were women of conviction who raised families under extreme circumstances, women who buried too many babies and yet somehow continued their journey, women who kept their family together to face the next hurdle and the next and the next, always seeking something better.

So, although I will never know those women, I know them. I saw them in my grandmother’s eyes as I recalled her journey, relocating our family from Mexico to the United States just before the Great Depression. I saw them in my mother’s eyes, working full time while she finished her education, the backbone and breadwinner of our family. And I look for them in my own, hoping that even a little bit of the indomitable spirit of these women – of my mother’s mother’s mother – will carry forth in me.

Note: Male DNA follows the Y-chromosome trail. DNA kits are available from the National Geographic at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I take it you were Haplogroup A-D?