Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Echoes of the ancestors

I recently finished geneticist Bryan Sykes's book, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: A Genetic History of Britain and Ireland, which describes the first exhaustive study of the DNA of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.  From there, I jumped right into The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic, by Robert L. O'Connell, which looks at one of the bloodiest battles on record -- the nearly complete massacre of the Roman army by the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.E.  That book, like Sykes's, considers the large-scale movements of populations.  The Carthaginians, for example, were mostly displaced Phoenicians who had intermarried with Indigenous North African people, and then occupied what is now Spain, adding in a Celtic strain (the "Celtiberians").

One thing that made my ears perk up in O'Connell's book is that Hannibal, in his march toward Rome, crossed through Transalpine Gaul, picking up large numbers of Gaulish mercenaries along the way, who of course had their own grudge with Rome to settle.  And his path took him right near -- perhaps through -- the valley up in the Alps containing the capital of the Celto-Ligurian tribe called the Tricorii, a town then known as Vapincum.

The name Vapincum eventually was shortened, and morphed into its current name, Gap, a modern town of forty thousand people.

It also happens to be about ten kilometers from the little village where my great-great-grandfather was born.

My last name was, like the name of Gap, altered and shortened over time.  It was originally Ariey, and then picked up a hyphenated modifier indicating the branch of the family we belonged to, and we became Ariey-Bonnet.  When my great-great-grandfather, Jacques Esprit Ariey-Bonnet, came over to the United States, the immigration folks didn't know how to handle a hyphenated name, and told him he'd have to use Ariey as his middle name and Bonnet as his surname, so all four of his children were baptized with the last name Bonnet, despite the fact that it wasn't his actual surname.

Just one of a million stories of how immigrants were forced to alter who they were upon arrival.

In any case, about three years ago, I had my DNA analyzed, and one of the things I found out was about my Y-DNA signature.  This is passed down from father to son, so I have the same Y DNA (barring any mutations) as my paternal ancestors as far back as you can trace.  And it turns out my haplogroup -- the genetic clan my Y-DNA belongs to -- is R1b1b2a1a2d3, which for brevity's sake is sometimes called R1b-L2.  And what I learned is that this DNA signature is "characteristically Italo-Gaulish," according to Eupedia, which is a great source of information for the histories of different DNA groups.

Distribution of the larger R1b Y DNA haplogroup [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Maulucioni, Haplogrupo R1b (ADN-Y), CC BY-SA 4.0]

What's most interesting is that as far back as I've traced my paternal lineage, they hardly moved at all.  My earliest known paternal ancestor, Georges Ariey, was born in about 1560 in Ranguis, France, only about a kilometer from the village of St. Jean-St. Nicolas where my great-great-grandfather Jacques Esprit Ariey-Bonnet was born three hundred years later.  And the DNA I carry indicates they'd been there a lot longer than that.

I have to wonder if my paternal ancestors were some of the Gauls who were there to see Hannibal's army headed for their fateful meeting with the Romans -- or even if they may have joined them.  The Tricorii were apparently noted for going into battle wearing nothing but body paint, so maybe this accounts for my own tendency to run around with as little clothing as is legally permissible when the weather's warm.  What's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh, as John Heywood famously said.

So then I had to look at my mtDNA haplogroup.  The mt (mitochondrial) DNA descends only from the maternal line, so we all have mtDNA from our mother's mother's mother (etc.).  Each person's mtDNA differs from another's only by mutations that have accrued since their last common matrilineal ancestor, and this can provide an idea of how long ago that was (in other words, when the two lineages diverged from each other).  Simply put, more differences = a longer time span since the two shared a common ancestor, making both mtDNA and Y DNA something geneticists call a molecular clock.  The mtDNA from my earliest known maternal ancestor, Marie-Renée Brault, who was born in 1616 in the Loire Valley of western France, belongs to haplogroup H13a1a.  Once again according to Eupedia, this lineage goes back a very long way -- it's been traced to populations living in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, and from there spread through the mountains of Greece, across the Alps, and all the way to western France where my maternal great-great (etc.) grandmother lived.

So that genetic signature was carried in the bodies of mothers and daughters along those travels, then crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, then went back across to France when the British expelled the Acadians in the Grand Dérangement, and crossed a third time to southern Louisiana in the late eighteenth century, finally landing in the little town of Raceland where my mother was born.  My dad's Y DNA took a different path -- staying put in the Celto-Ligurian populations of the high Alps for millennia, and only in the nineteenth century jumping across the Atlantic to Louisiana, eventually to meet up with my mother's DNA and produce me.

It's astonishing to me how much we now can figure out about the movement of people whose names and faces are forever lost to history, echoes of our ancestors left behind in our very genes.  However much I'd like to know more about them -- a forlorn hope at best -- at least I've gotten to find out about the shared heritage of our genetic clans, and can content myself with daydreams about what those long-ago people saw, heard, and felt.


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