Meeting the Family: One Man's Journey Through His Human Ancestry
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Donovan Webster brings his vivid journalistic gifts to a new subject, tracing our deep genealogy using cutting-edge DNA research to map our eons-old journey from prehistoric Africa into the modern world. With the same genetic haplotype as many white American males, Webster makes an ideal subject—he is a genuine Everyman. While his voice and spirit are unique to him, in exploring his own ancestry, he shows us our own.
Drawing on National Geographic’s Genographic Project, the largest anthropologic DNA study of its kind, Webster traces centuries of migrations, everywhere finding members of his now far-flung genetic family. In Tanzania’s Rift Valley, he hunts with Julius, whose tribe speaks a click language, and wanders the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia with Mohamed and Khalid, now Jordanian citizens. In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, eastern frontier of his ancestral roaming, a circus ringmaster becomes both friend and link to his primal bloodline.
Webster’s genographic quest leads him to contemplate what traits he shares with those he meets, and considers what they and their ways of life reveal about the deep history of our species. A lifetime of journalistic travels among a wide range of cultures furnish Webster with a wealth of colorful threads to weave into a story as particularly personal as it is universally human.
we’ll come to understand how these species evolved and were distributed. But to lump them all together, from all these different localities in these various places, and to say they’re all the same? Over all those thousands or millions of years and that kind of geographic distribution? Well, it’s almost got to be more complicated than that.” Some scientists have taken this reasoned approach and run in an entirely different direction. Over the last century, a small group of scientists and
shoulder. It’s a security guard; in his right hand, he’s carrying a large silver flashlight. “Excuse me, sir,” he says in English. “But it’s time to go. The ruins have been closed for almost an hour. How did you get in here?” I dig in my jeans pocket and extract my ticket, showing it to the guard. “I just came, and have been looking around,” I say. “This place is unbelievable.” “Yes, yes,” he says. “But now it is time to go.” Back at the hotel, Maya is waiting, concerned. “Where have you
airport, at least I haven’t had all my worldly goods whisked into that blind infinity called Lost Baggage. Still, my mind is having a hard time processing it all. Late one afternoon toward the end of my visit in Samarkand, standing on the sidewalk beneath the spreading and shady trees of the ancient Silk Road—halfway around the world from my home—I am frustrated and alone and lost, invisible in the bigger world. And that’s when it hits me. In a very real way, this is what all of us are doing in
brown with a blaze of white on its chest, darts in with a lightning-quick lunge, its mouth open to bite the warthog’s haunches. Julius shouts at the dog a word I don’t understand but which makes the dog recoil in fear. The rest of the dogs continue to circle, but they get no closer. That quickly, our hunt for today is over. Two minutes later, the boxy, gray-black warthog is lying on its side, having bled its last into the Rift Valley’s ash-colored soil. Julius is now smiling triumphantly.
Europe. Then, arriving in Moscow to find the place burned to the ground he and his army faced a long, wintry, bullet-ridden walk back to Paris that will reputedly leave Napoleon with only about 22,000 men. Recall, too: “The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire…”, the faceless, meat-grinder killing across the poppy fields of the Somme…the Thousand-Year Reich…nuclear power…the rise of silicon-based memory…the notion that the Internet will save us by connecting us…. As Homo sapiens, we move