I joined Ancestry.com to confirm my ancestral points of origin, then, just for fun, had my DNA decoded. One resulting revelation was that my 10th great-grandfather, Francis Cooke, and his son, John, were passengers on the Mayflower. But that fun fact was actually not as intriguing as the discovery that you and I share a fragment of ancient genetic code. I’m talking about Neanderthal DNA. And apparently, I have more than most people.
I admit I immediately succumbed to the stereotype, as in, does this explain my SAT scores? (I had previously defended them to my increasingly dubious kids like this: “Mommy is a different kind of smart…”). But as it turns out, we all have a bit of Neanderthal in us. Some of us less than 1 %. Some of us as much as 2 %. Some of us are not telling.
The report gained a lot of credibility with me when it went on to explain that I carry a particular Neanderthal gene related to waking up frequently throughout the night while requiring less sleep than most people. Finally, a diagnosis. Blame it on cave men. I fall asleep quickly but come fully awake at least 8 times a night, and yet…I am not sleepy during the day and totally functional. Genes! Who knew? I can see the evolutionary advantage. Who’s going to sense the wolfpack circling the campfire first? The slugabeds who died out, or Team Neanderthal?
We used to think that modern humans were so intellectually superior that they simply wiped out the Neanderthals. Now we understand Neanderthals didn’t submit to the interlopers. We charmed them. We invited folks over. Who had their thinking caps on the day those two wary groups met, I’d like to ask? Who’s the smarty now? Think of the meeting of modern humans and Neanderthals as the first blended family.
Why do we do this? Look for roots, our origins, our homelands? I suspect it helps us build a container for the self, that it anchors us, adds to that feeling of I know who I am because I know where I came from. No one knows who named the earth, but we do know it is a combination of old Germanic and old English words meaning “ground.” To know your own history, however complex, is grounding.
My lovely eldest daughter married a Brit and made England her home in a reverse immigration. My grandsons, 4 and 5, have British accents, and perhaps have relatives who served at the royal court or were served at court. They have never been to America, but I hope they learn their whole rich history.
And my son married a beautiful New Zealander of Scottish and Māori descent. So, their children’s genetic code includes passengers on a Mayflower manifest, and far earlier adventurers, who crossed an ocean bigger than their known universe in log canoes.
What if, as the world becomes smaller, these distinctions dissolve? Engineers are working on a next-generation jet with the ultimate goal of getting you anywhere in the world in an hour for $100. Borders may become obsolete.
What if in a distant future we become one race? Combining the best of all of us? Keen intelligence, fierce integrity, instinctive kindness. Everyone speaking one language, preserving one fragile planet, our only means of transport around our star.
Race: Human. Home: Earth.
At what point will our similarities outweigh our differences? Not us and them. Not my people versus your people. The ultimate blended family of man.
Maybe we can place our attention on our commonality now. I’m sure you and I are connected by a thousand similar feelings and behaviors.
Case in point. Have you ever been in your astronomy class on zoom, turned off your camera, muted your mic, and danced to Shake it Off, (demonstrating your coolest moves), only to discover your camera was on the whole time?
Of course not.
Neither have I.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.