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Embrace the DNA that makes you a mongrel

by Rowan Hooper

This month, we celebrate the mongrel, a word that means different things to different people. For some, it may bring to mind nonpedigree dogs, mutts that don’t belong to a specific breed; in Japanese, the word is daken, which has the definite negative connotation of a “skulking cur.”

But I want to celebrate mongrels in the sense that U.S. President Barack Obama meant it when he was asked in 2010 why he didn’t refer to himself as “black.” Obama — whose mother was Kansas-born white, and whose father was a black Kenyan — said African-Americans are a “mongrel people.”

“I mean we’re all kinds of mixed-up,” the president said. “Now that’s actually true for white America as well.”

Obama’s comments sparked a mild controversy over his use of the word. The best Japanese rendering for this meaning of mongrel is konketsu (mixed blood). More commonly in Japan, people are described in whispers — often admiring whispers, it has to be said — as hāfu, meaning “half of one ‘type’ and half of another.”

In Obama’s sense of mixed-blood mongrels, Britain is the same as the United States — it is populated by a mongrel people. In both cases, multiple waves of invasion and migration have shaped their genetic legacy. On the face of it, Japan appears different.

Closed to the world for hundreds of years from the early 17th century, Japan was only really opened following the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in the 1850s, that led in large part to the 1868 Meiji Restoration and the pell-mell modernization it unleashed.

At first glance, a newcomer to Japan could be forgiven for believing that there is something to the propaganda much favored by most of the country’s nationalist, rightwing organizations — namely that the Japanese are a “pure” people; a homogeneous “race.”

But just because most people have black hair, that doesn’t mean there is not a great deal of genetic diversity among the people of Japan. Foreigners who have never visited the country but have only seen images of the place might naively think the Japanese “all look the same” — which, incidentally, I’ve heard said by Japanese people about white Europeans. No matter; any time spent in Japan quickly dispels any such notion.

Indeed Japan, like the United Kingdom and the United States, has been subjected to waves of migration that leave a lasting genetic imprint. It’s just that, typically, Japanese people prefer to think of themselves as being distinct — in this case biologically.

I’ll come back to this, because what has sparked my celebration of the mongrel is closer to home. Much closer, in fact, because I’ve recently had a DNA ancestry test done and have seen a glimpse of the fascinating mishmash of genetic influences that I’ve inherited.

There’s nothing exotic about me to look at, I’m a common or garden variety white British male. But that’s kind of the point. Even the boring-looking ones become interesting if you look at their genes. And now I suddenly feel more exotic.

A genetic testing company, BritainsDNA, carried out the analysis to determine my maternal and paternal bloodlines. It turns out that my father’s ancestors can be traced to Catalonia and northern Spain, and my mother’s to a tribe that inhabited North Africa, Syria and Iraq.

I have to stop myself getting carried away, though, because unfortunately this doesn’t mean I have ancestors from Barcelona or that my distant relatives were scholars in ancient Mesopotamia. The test relates to just two parts of my DNA: my mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the female line, and my Y chromosome, which is inherited from father to son.

The test involves screening for certain DNA markers. In my case, they found a marker that is most common in men from northern Spain and Catalonia. My mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, belongs to the so-called T lineage, which probably originated in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent.

Think about how quickly your ancestors, your direct relatives, multiply the further back in time you go. Most of us will be able to point to two sets of grandparents we know or knew, and some will include great-grandparents. At least, it’s easy to name our great-grandparents. That’s already eight people we derive our genes from, and that’s not uncommon in living memory.

By the time you go back, say, 12 generations, you have around 4,000 relatives. That’s only about 300 years ago. The origin of the subgroup marker known as T2 that I carry has been traced back to Mesopotamia around 25,000 years ago. Many millions of people alive today will have the same marker.

If it means anything to say that all those millions of folk are my relatives, it is only in the sense that everyone now on Earth is related, since all the branches of the human tree arose relatively recently in Africa. Having said that, the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II — and the American outlaw Jesse James — both belong to the same T2 subgroup as me, which I still find quite cool despite understanding that it’s basically meaningless.

And so back to Japan. The country was “seeded” largely overland from Asia by the Jomon people before sea level rises around 12,000 years ago created the Japanese archipelago. Those first inhabitants were joined by the Yayoi people who sailed from the Korean Peninsula at least 2,000 years ago. Debate rages about the relative importance of this later migration event, but genetic data can shed light on it.

In a study published late last year, Naruya Saito and colleagues from the Japanese Archipelago Human Population Genetics Consortium, used genetic analysis to infer the history of humans in Japan (Journal of Human Genetics, DOI reference: 10.1038/jhg.2012.114). They found evidence of widespread mixture between the Ainu people of Hokkaido — the descendents of the Jomon people — and people in mainland Japan.

While the origins of the Jomon and Yayoi peoples remain to be uncovered, I imagine the DNA analysis will continue to reveal some kind of konketsu background for the Japanese.

With the currently rising tensions in East Asia, an acceptance of its peoples’ mongrel nature — it may be premature to think in terms of “celebration” — can only be a good thing.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”