This is the title of a fascinating article in today’s Outlook section of the Washington Post. The message is one of the inevitability of exponential math when applied to a steadily shrinking population as we go back in history and attempt to identify precisely what stock we may have come from. In this case, the number of direct and distinct ancestors a person has and what this may tell us about our “race” through our DNA.The math alluded to by the author, Steve Olson, should provide beneficial correction for anyone who believes he is unique among men as to the purity of his ancestral blood. Specifically, the fact that the total human population shrinks dramatically in the past relative to modern times should give us pause if we think that we can somehow make a clean genealogic chart back to some Adam and Eve. Or, even, back to some noble family in the Middle Ages.
Although the article did not go in this direction, isn’t it the case that the first of a “noble” line is the fella who by force of arms wiped out the local opposition, staked his claim, and then made things cushy for his sons and grandsons? Put this another way — can you envision Prince Charles going mano a mano with some Attila the Hun in a smackdown for Windsor Castle? Neither can I.
What it all means is that thee and me are cuz (cousins), however many times removed, but that we are likely to find a common ancestor a lot closer in history than you might imagine. Again, depending on which theory of the origins of homo sapiens sapiens proves valid. Right now, the two dominant theories are the replacement model, which posits a common ancestor for all us sapiens sapiens in Africa, on the order of 100-200,000 years ago, and the regional continuity (or multiregional) model. The multiregional model posits, well, that there were more or less simultaneous sproutings of our ancestors in a variety of venues in the Eastern Hemisphere, now thoroughly admixed through migration and interbreeding. Two general locations, based on fossil findings, are in southern Africa and southwest Asia. (for a quick tutorial on current thoughts about human evolution, try this website: Evolution of Modern Humans: A Survey of the Biological and Cultural Evolution of Archaic and Modern Homo sapiens.
I tend to give more credance to the multiregional modal; I think that God, naturally being a conservative, likes to backup his hard drive, too, and his hard drive might be called “evolution”. However, wouldn’t it be sweet if we were all proven to have common ancestors in Africa? That would make me, and thee, and everyone else now in the United States, an “African American”. Then maybe we could focus on people as individuals instead of as members of arbitrary cultural groupings that have no real meaning.