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Topic section: DNA and ethnic identity
TOPIC SECTION:
DNA and ethnic identity
Picture: 10319221s3.jpg
First genetic fingerprint, 1984. The genetic fingerprint is used to identify similarities and differences in genetic makeup between individuals.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Large-scale DNA analysis of our direct male and female lines has shown that we are all descended from a small number of ancestors. However, these distant ancestors are not like the biblical Adam and Eve: they lived in different places at different times. Nor are they our only ancestors. We are descended from other prehistoric people, but for one reason or another they have not left any traces in our genes. Ultimately, we are all descended from people who lived in Africa many thousands of years ago.

Is there such a thing as race? The concept of race is a very powerful one, but it has little basis in genetics. Many racial distinctions arose because they are easy to perceive. Our underlying genetic similarities had to await the devel

The belief that white races were ’better’ than black ones allowed slavery to flourish for centuries

opment of genetics and the introduction of DNA testing. The study of the DNA of large populations has revealed similarities and variations in different regions, largely unconnected to visible ‘racial’ characteristics. By contrast, external variations – differences in skin colour, hair and facial appearance – are now considered to be superficial adaptations to local conditions. Ethnic groups who have lived in similar climates for a long period tend to look the same, regardless of their historical or genetic background. Furthermore, many people are a mixture of different ethnic and racial groups. Genetic analysis has shown that some white people have black ancestors and vice versa. The Nazis believed that ‘racial purity’, by only allowing blond Germans to marry other blond Germans, would strengthen the (non-existent) ‘Aryan’ race. In practice, this policy would have had the opposite effect. Unless the chosen group is very large, only marrying within a specific group (called endogamy) increases the likelihood of genetic diseases.

Racial theories have had a powerful cultural impact. Much effort has gone into the promotion of the idea of national races and migration of different races across the continents. We fo
Picture: 10325828s3.jpg
A coloured engraving showing facial portraits of men from different parts of the world. Differences in skin colour, hair and facial appearance are now considered to be superficial adaptations to local conditions rather than the result of genetic background.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
rm our identity partly around the comforting notion that we ‘belong’ to a particular race or ethnic community with its own history and culture. The modern political map of Europe has been largely shaped around the principle of a homeland for each ethnic group, with only partial success.The belief that white races were ’better’ than black ones allowed slavery to flourish for centuries. The narrower concept of a superior ‘Aryan’ race – based on early linguistic theories – was peddled by the Nazis with horrific consequences. The turmoil in the former Yugoslavia also shows the harmful effects of taking the belief in racial identity to its extreme.

Modern genetic research has shown that tribal migrations were fewer and less extensive than traditional archaeology had suggested. New ideas have been spread by cultural exchange and intermingling rather than by the complete displacement of native groups by more powerful invaders. Farming was introduced into Europe from the Near East about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to genetic studies, we now know that newcomers did bring these new methods with them – their genes make up about twenty per cent of Europeans’ genetic make-up – but they did not displace the earlier migrants into Europe. The genetic signatures of these older groups can still be found throughout the continent.
 
 
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Topic section: Tracing your ancestors could save your life
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Some medical conditions are caused by changes in our genetic material. They can be passed from one generation to the next. Genealogy allows researchers to trace back some of these conditions to their human origins.  > more

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Topic section: One big family
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Scientists have attempted to reconstruct the movement of different groups and the development of modern cultures. It appears we are all descended from a small group of early people, the mothers and fathers of all living human beings.  > more

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Topic section: To find an ancestor, get a DNA test
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Using genealogy, we can sometimes track our ancestors over a couple of centuries. Genetics can do much more: it can link people who died thousands of years ago to their modern-day descendants.  > more
 
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