Students Examine Their Family Tree--10,000 Years Back

News Story: March 1, 2009

This was a topic ready-made for Sacred Heart University’s series of colloquia on the Human Journey since it took students on a journey in time and geography to explore their common roots. “The Genographic Project” is a landmark study suggesting that all human beings trace their lineage to a group of sub-Saharan ancestors in eastern Africa. A close inspection of the family tree revealed to students that we all have a lot in common.

At two separate meetings, students assembled to discuss this worldwide study, in which many had also participated, and the implications that we are all cousins. The seminars are customarily directed by an interdisciplinary team of SHU professors. In this case, it was Dr. Kirk Bartholomew, of Biology, Dr. Lesley DeNardis, of Government & Politics, and Dr. Kathryn LaFontana, of Psychology. The students had had the opportunity to participate in the Genographic Project sponsored by the National Geographic Society.  In this project, students provide an anonymous sample of their DNA through a simple swab of the inner cheek. This DNA is then sent off for laboratory analysis and the results indicate the ancient origins of maternal or paternal ancestors that lived 10,000 or more years ago—sometimes much more.

As Dr. Bartholomew explained, anthropologists and geneticists are overwhelmingly in agreement on the “Out of Africa” origin of the human species where all humans alive today can trace their ancestry to a population living in east central Africa approximately 150,000 years ago.  More startling are recent results suggesting that massive and repeated droughts in eastern Africa reduced the human species to small fragmented populations of near extinction size—perhaps as few as 2,000 genetically distinct individuals.  Everyone now living is a descendant of these “first families.” The implications, noted Dr. LaFontana and Dr. DeNardis, are enormous since it means that we all share the same gene pool, and that our differences are most striking at the surface. Deep down, we are all the same.

The students had read introductory materials and discussed in class the research findings that say people are often subject to two kinds of bias – both “in favor of” and “against.” While regular interaction with others may ease our evident prejudices, some may remain hidden beneath the surface, and the position that “they” are, in important ways, different from “us” is not a valid argument from science.

The “Human Journey” has included many options for students to explore questions at the heart of what it means to be a human being. This particular leg of the journey brought the participants face to face with biology, political realities, and psychology, among a number of fields, and invited them to think about issues in ways that may be unusual or even uncomfortable. And this time, they got to meet some new members of the very old family as well.