Phil Harding’s DNA

Things are rarely exactly as they seem.  I remember watching just a few years ago the hugely popular archeology show from British TV, called “Time Team.”  I specially recall Phil Harding, the colorful field archeologist with the big hat, when he was getting his DNA tested. With the analysis complete, Phil was told he had been descended from the original hunter-gatherer-fishers who came to Britain thousands of years ago.  “I knew it, I knew it!” I can still hear him exclaim with much glee.  I guess it was a validation for him being different (which he certainly was).  This was all about his ancient origins, yes, but also about his present personal identity.

There is an old understated joke that says, “I am special, like everybody else!”  I suppose most of us would like to think we are different and distinct, and so we are.  It is remarkable how unique we are able to be among the billions of humans on the planet, but at the same time, aren’t we also very similar in lots of ways?  Phil may not yet have known that he was far from alone in his ancestry or his joy might have been tempered somewhat.  I mentioned Alistair Moffat’s book Before Scotland a couple of blogs back, and he reports that an  important DNA study has shown that fully 80 per cent of people presently living in Britain are descended from the ancient hunter-gatherer-fishers who came over from elsewhere in Europe.  Eighty per cent.

This DNA finding came as a surprise to people who had assumed the British population to be quite a rich mixture of many different peoples because of various invasions and periods of immigration.  But when we consider that many of the invaders were nearby Europeans of very similar origins (Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse, Normans), it confirms that most Brits are much more related to each other than was previously known.  Sorry, Phil, you are kind of a unique guy but you’re more alike to your friends and neighbors than different.

Similar DNA studies were done in continental Europe, with remarkably similar results. For those of us living elsewhere in the English-speaking world, we are also “related” to Phil Harding if we are white and of European stock, especially if we have British surnames. My own response to this fact was not nearly as rousing as was Phil’s reaction, but the news did give me pause for thought.  I and many of the people I know are more genetically like each other than may have been assumed, and we are all more like those who have gone long before us than we may have suspected.

Of course, changes and improvements over the generations do occur, as they should, and I can celebrate my individual uniqueness, as I should.  But I think part of getting in touch with who I am, of learning my own identity, involves appreciating that I am a twig on a small family branch, and this branch comes from bigger branches that long ago grew from the trunk of the human family tree.  This helps me to remember that much of what is good about me exists in others also, and the things that are not so good are not totally on my shoulders alone.  On this planet, I am part of a special and talented, and problematic, life-form.

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