Contributed by Ciarán Wallace
Recently RTÉ broadcast ‘The Blood of The Irish’, an interesting TV documentary on the ancestral DNA of the earliest inhabitants of Ireland. The programme supported the idea that the island was settled from the west thousands of years ago, in a sea-borne migration by a population from the present-day Basque region. A more extensive BBC series, ‘The Human Journey’, dealt with the global spread of humans from eastern Africa to the rest of the planet.
Intrigued by the possibilities of this scientific archaeology I tracked down a company that analyses DNA taken from saliva, to identify which prehistoric population movement led to my sitting in this particular office typing this article. (You can see that, despite the statement on the company website explaining what DNA testing could and could not reveal, I may have harboured unrealistic expectations.) I paid my €169, the small saliva sampling kit arrived (empty) and was duly returned (half-full). Within the promised 8–12 weeks I received an e-mail outlining my results. There was an attachment which, when printed off on a colour printer at A3 size, would give me a certificate to hang on my wall. To be honest, I was not impressed. The certificate reminded me of those history-of-your-surname-with-family-crest printouts produced in tourist shops. This was a pity as the science bit appears to have been done properly. Over thirty DNA markers were extracted and compared to a range of blood-lines previously established by international testing. The information had to be transmitted to me, the uninitiated customer, in a language I could understand. Therein lay the problem.
Having some scientific curiosity, but little actual knowledge, I must rely on the reputation of the testing firm, and of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland with whom they appear to have some connection. I cannot conduct the test, nor can I interpret the meaning of the results. A reading list of books, websites and journal articles on genetic genealogy accompanied the e-mail. After hours of reading I gained a tenuous grasp on the basics, the terminology was still tricky however. It took some concentration to understand the difference between the autosomal DNA, X-DNA, Y-DNA or mtDNA tests. More by accident than by design had chosen the Y-DNA test, now I had to decipher the results. My Haplogroup, the particular migratory strand from which I descend, was identified as R1b1c. In fairness, the scientists have tried to simplify these codes by agreeing on a label for each Haplogroup reflecting its historical dispersal pattern. Among them are Irish, Pictish, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Northmen, Pretani, Caledonian and Norse-Viking. Despite reading a range of explanatory articles, some using codes, others using labels and most assuming a level of genetic literacy, I found it impossible to understand what my own results meant. The R1b1c Haplogroup is labelled ‘Pretani’ (or was that a subclade? – it’s hard to tell). This may or may not be common in Britain and Ireland, but it appears to be distinct from the Niall of the Nine Hostages and the Pictish groups. That is as much as I could interpret.
What is very clear from the reading matter however is that the field of genetic genealogy is still evolving. New blood-lines are being discovered and an increasing number of individuals are paying for tests. Although much of the web content was aimed at family historians, the benefits of the test for recent genealogy seemed doubtful. Even clearer is the communication gap between the specialists conducting the tests and the general public who salivate over the results. In a friendly exchange of emails with my testing company agreed that this is a challenge.
Quite apart from the commercial possibilities and customer service issues, this technology raises some broader issues. In the face of endless advances in scientific technology how can the humanities keep abreast of important developments? The power of the DNA test conjured up an image of those authoritative experts in the 1930s, charts and callipers in hand, classifying ‘racial types’. My struggle to grasp genetics-for-beginners strengthens the claims of experts to mediate between science and mankind. I was not reassured by some of the discussion on (admittedly non-scientific) internet forums.
Commentators point to the role of the humanities in challenging and interpreting the sciences. Today’s physicians and philosophers can trace their shared academic heritage back to the polymaths of the Classical, Medieval and Early Modern eras. However, recent generations of researchers have become increasingly estranged from their distant academic cousins; their languages are no longer intelligible to one another. The risk in such a separation is great. While science can pride itself on distinguishing lines of descent in DNA, the humanities know that wherever differences are identified prioritisation and discrimination can easily follow.