Time and the Search for Meaning in DNA

The Problem with Time

My history teacher in the 8th grade (who shall remain Mr. Baker) said that we have no concept of time. He was the kind of guy I’ve always thought I should be. Well versed in history, pretty physically fit, owned property in the woods that he would clear trails on. He’d talk about how he would clear brush, then snow shoe, then ski all winter on the trails he’d made. Every year he built a snow shelter and would sleep in it for one night just for the experience of it. To this day, I can see my own mental version of him, having spent a long day tending to his forest; he would sit with a thick book on the lives and times of some people or place, and enjoy the simple comfort of a warm fire.

He said that people have no concept of time or the amount of time that has past. We cannot even imagine the scale of time beyond a certain amount. Of course I thought he was bonkers. A hundred years is a hundred years, a million a million. What is so confounding about that?

I think the idea that was lost on an 8th grader, was that humans perceive time in a very human centered way. We see things in the span of our lifetimes and we have some idea of the time spans that surround a lifetime of human experience. When things do not last as long as we do, we try to equate them to our time. How many “dog” years are there to one human year?. We also have some idea of things that live a bit longer than we do. Parrots and turtles that reach their hundreds. Buildings a few hundred years old, gain our reverence. A 400 year old tree is something to marvel at.  We struggle, though as things become older than a few generations from us. We begin to condense and simplify time to make sense.

Time, Time, Time See what’s Become of Me

What is old or ancient? The Romans are ancient. I hear them called ancient. How about the Saxons who invaded England after they left. Are they ancient? What about Genghis Khan? Does he classify as ancient now or is he too new? Does he just classify as old?

I think because of where and when I was raised, the Romans are ancient, but the Saxons, Vikings, Mongols, all these invading armies and looters are close enough to me in time to not feel ancient. The middle ages don’t feel ancient to me, just old, but I condense, Rome, Greece, Persia, the beginning of the empire in China, Egypt and the Pharaohs, all into the ancient world. One big lump. Everything else is pre-history from the first humans to walk around Africa to the beginning of farming and beyond all slapped into one big pre-historic ball that is beyond “Ancient”.

A lot of people might agree with me, but do I have a concept of how long these things lasted?

Once I’ve gone more than a few thousand years back, do I really have a concept of the amazing amount of time that passed between the first mammal and the first human or the first human and the Romans? I think the answer is no. I understand it of course, like I understand that the ocean is “big”, but it’s not the little cove I fish in every day that I associate with myself. Taking it all in at once is too difficult. Just as the ocean has to be broken up into several oceans and seas in order to make sense to me, so does time.

I have made a montage of accomplishments out of a long history. I have created sound bites from the story of us, because my own 42 years has seemed like a lifetime. I need to make little boxes for things and events to fit in and I pile them all up. 3 million years is unimaginable, I can’t wait three minutes for microwave popcorn. So that is how you end up with the Pyramids lumped with the Romans and mammoths lumped with cave men. Realizing that mammoths and Ancient Egypt overlapped to some extent requires the mixing of my neat boxes of time and becomes an unacceptable reality for me.

My perception of time skews my view of reality.

horses cave painting

The Problem with Genealogical Time

A genealogical time frame is the time from you to your oldest reliably documented ancestors. I don’t mean Charlemagne or any of that. I mean genealogies of regular people who occur in records that don’t require any leaps of faith. For people who are lucky enough to be from popular families, this can be several hundred years. Some people have a line or two that is related to some famous family or a titled family and that can go back even further, but I would treat those as outside cases. They are interesting but usually limited to a single dynasty and not representative of the bulk of your known ancestors.

This works well because it fits well in a box of time. It’s a box of time that is well documented (mostly) and more recent. There are no mammoths in the box..or even pyramids really. It is easy to think about because it can be talked of in the distance of great grandparents. My 8th great grandparents or my 3rd great grandfather and so on. This is the time where family history meets identity. The “who are we” question is answered here.

We condense and simplify identity time too. We’re “Irish” might mean one 2nd great grandparent got off a boat, while the rest of the generations of English, African, German, etc representing hundreds of years..are left in the dust. We can forgive ourselves because this is the time of family stories that tell us what we stand for and why. We’re “Irish” is then built upon with what that means to us. It is an extremely personal time filled with local heroes, just a stones throw away. Heroes which we can aspire to emulate.

The Heroes of Old…are not that Old

So, then, what is the problem? The problem is that our identity, the journey of us, is built from these near relations and family stories, while our family is much, much, much older and does contain loads of unknown humans. We are related to a bunch of nameless Romans, and cave men, and first humans who individually lived in circumstances that we don’t know about, don’t have documentation on and cannot hope to emulate. Sure I am pretty good at being a cave man (just ask my wife), but am I being my cave men? Were my Romans on top of the game or slaves or somewhere in between? What do I do if I don’t feel particularly Roman? Why are they so ancient and foreign to my identity?

We are the product of millions of years with a cultural concept of ourselves that is in the hundreds of years.

I am an African, but my family left Africa so long ago that they wouldn’t recognize me if I went back. I’ve been interbred with neanderthals, my skin has mutated to a ghostly color that no longer protects me from the sun, my hair has grown straight and it’s the wrong color too. My eyes are probably the most haunting abnormality, they are watery colored orbs fit for a cave fish. In short, my family moved out of Africa and became Gollum.

I am an African, but I don’t feel very African, my concept of myself is built in the near time, in genealogical time where I can point to people who probably look like me, have a lot of the same cultural aspects that I do, and maybe even talk like me. My concept of Africa is built in the same time frame, where the people and their language and culture are alien to me.

The Problem with Genetic Time

Genetic time does not come with a map or a timeline. Genetic time is all about relevance. Genetic time can span 50,000 years or just 400 or even just one generation. When is the genetic data I have relevant to me? How can it aid my research? The answers are very different based on the results you have and what has been done to them. This is tough stuff because it can span my little boxes of time. It can contain the Romans and Mammoths at the same time and neither of those (however interesting they are) may be relevant to my research.

I’m going to use Mitochondrial DNA haplogroups as my gateway example. MTDNA is only passed on by women. Men carry it, but don’t pass it on. It passes only mothers and daughters and dies out in a son. So MTDNA forms a straight line back through your mom, her mom, her mom…etc. There are no fathers in this scenario.

Through testing, I find out that I’m haplogroup T2a. What does that tell me?

Mitochondrial DNA is a direct tie to my mom, but with the limited testing I’ve had done, I’m tied to another person who lived sometime between 7000 years ago and today, who had the mutation for haplogroup T2a. So I’m making the leap from my own mother to roughly, 5000 BC.

My last known maternal line ancestor (straight line of mothers all the way back) is a woman named Catherine Cable from the U.S. east coast in the 1700s. Not exactly prime time for building pyramids or hunting the last of the mammoths, but that is the information I have right now to work with. Is T2a relevant to Catherine Cable or to me? Can it really inform my research? Would it be more informative if I pursued it further?

Here is what 23 and me has to say about it:

A particular version of the T2 haplogroup has been detected in 4% of the present-day Spanish population. The same version has also been found in DNA extracted from 7,000-year-old skeletons excavated in northeastern Spain, an indication that the distinctive form of T2 arrived in southwestern Europe about the same time as agriculture.

An offshoot of T2, haplogroup T2a, can be found at low levels in Egypt and the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. Although extremely rare outside the Near East, T2a has been found sporadically in Iberia, France and Norway.

Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, France, Spain, Norway moving along with the first farmers 7000 years ago? It’s better than nothing because I have some locations, but still, how can it help me in my research? How do I make the local connection to Catherine Cable and then myself; More importantly, should I make that local connection?

Forcing the Pieces to Fit

Continuing with MTDNA as an example, I don’t have much on Catherine except her last name, so I’ll begin there. Cable is an English name for a person who makes rope. It’s an Anglo-Norman-French “job” name, like Baker or Smith. The word cable is borrowed into French from Latin.

Perhaps Catherine’s family is then from France (see the list above of T2a locations). It’s specifically associated with seamanship and sea trade. It’s also listed as a word of Arabic origin (again see the list of T2a locations). So in my minds eye I can begin to construct a sea voyage from the Arab Peninsula or maybe Egypt to France that brings a rope maker which leads to Catherine Cable and her T2a MTDNA showing up on the east coast of the united states which then leads to me.

Now, I have a picture in my mind of a journey. Can I back up my story? Does evidence support it?

If you go back to 2011 and see the various reports on my autosomal DNA, you may note that I have a percentage of African and Middle Eastern DNA (little pink segment below).

autosomal DNA analysis chart mainly europe with some amount of middle east and africa

You can also see my DIY Dodecad Oracle mixture results on that page which clearly show a percentage of West Asian DNA:

East_European 11.65%
West_European 49.02%
Mediterranean 26.88%
Neo_African 0.24%
West_Asian 8.59%
South_Asian 1.23%
Northeast_Asian 0.58%
Southeast_Asian 0.01%
East_African 0.00%
Southwest_Asian 1.40%
Northwest_African 0.40%
Palaeo_African 0.00%

Here is a map that clearly shows that “West Asia” encompasses areas where T2a exists. Let’s back those results up with analysis from Family Tree DNA:


My autosomal DNA is lining up with my MTDNA. You can plainly see that I carry middle eastern ATDNA and middle eastern MTDNA. All of this fits with my story of the origins of Catherine Cable who is English and probably Norman-French before that and likely Egyptian before that.

There, I have made my local connection to my, beyond ancient, mitochondrial DNA haplogroup. I have taken something that is likely not relevant and made it relevant to me.

Although some aspects of my analysis could be true, there are several things that just don’t fit. I’ve made several critical errors. I’m sure I don’t even understand all the places I’ve gone wrong, but there are a few in there that I can see.

Where I Think I Went Wrong -or- Creating My Creation Story

Ymir suckles from cow

By Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard – mechanical reproduction of 2D image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=639093

Compressing Time

If you look back at my stream of consciousness/analysis in genealogical time above, you can see that I  jump to a conclusion about my MTDNA, I try to learn about it from the perspective of my last known MTDNA bearing ancestor. She’s the last because I don’t know much about her mother. I forced Catherine’s unknown history to fit my MTDNA and latched onto any evidence that might back that up. Because of my nearsighted focus on Catherine, I compressed time (thousands of years) to get from the ancient near east to Europe as quickly as possible. I ignored other possible paths that would have taken longer.

Surname Speculation

Cable is Catherine Cable’s surname. She got that from her father, not her mother where her MTDNA comes from. Surnames in the context of Europe have little if anything to do with MTDNA because there is a different surname for each woman in every generation.

My limited information on Catherine (her surname) is of little use when explaining the MTDNA I inherit from generations of her daughters. I should to follow her nameless mothers back through time. Her surname is irrelevant. It doesn’t follow the DNA evidence at all and it’s not nearly old enough to be tied to our mitochondrial DNA.

Autosomal DNA Speculation

Armed with that misinformation based on surname, I can look at my autosomal DNA and, to tell the truth, it gives me a big boost. Analysis of my ATDNA as compared to several populations shows some middle eastern DNA, both in 3rd party tools and through Family Tree DNA (often the only company people have tested with). That along with the minor misstep of surname information can take you pretty far into the wrong direction.

Why is it wrong though?

First off, looking at my Autosomal DNA (big red chromosome chart and ethnicity estimates etc..) being tied to my mitochondrial DNA, you should be skeptical because you only see my DNA. You do not have my mother or father to compare to. Although my MTDNA is certainly from my mother, the ATDNA could be from either parent. It’s a 50/50 chance coin flip which parent it came from. The MTDNA and ATDNA are independent players in my genome. Those middle eastern segments could be from my mom, my dad, or even some mix of both of them that just happens to look like a solid segment. Without further information, I just don’t know.

A second reason to be skeptical, is that these estimates are based on my total genome compared to reference populations (sometimes hundreds of people and sometimes only a few). The analysis of these segments can be very different at different companies. Although FTDNA agreed in some respects with an earlier analysis, 23 and me shows only the most minor amount of middle eastern DNA. For 23 and me, it’s likely background noise based on their middle eastern reference populations. FTDNA may have reference populations mainly built around Turkey while 23 and me used Yemen to represent their “near east” populations. Take that uncertainty and then add in that my middle eastern segments might be the product of mixing up both my parent’s DNA and now the case for genealogical timed, middle eastern heritage is on much shakier ground.

Misreading the Signs

In the same vein, I’ve misused my Dodecad Oracle results. Those results that I pulled are not the actual analysis of the population I’m closest to. They don’t represent an ancestor of mine. They are a recipe for building me. So it’s not that I have a West Asian ancestor I can point to that gave me 8.5% of my genome, it’s that 500 of my ancestors added together each individually had a minor percentage of West Asian segments and some percentage of those made it to me. They are scattered around my genome.

The actual population I match best through Dodecad Oracle is Europeans who live in Utah which makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t mean that I’m from Utah or that any of my ancestors are, but that my unique mix of genetic material is most like people in Utah that jumped into DNA testing early on. I imagine a lot of people in the U.S. would pull them as a close population.

Although it’s possible that Catherine Cable really did have some middle eastern descent, I can’t rule out all the other possible ancestors that may have had that background as well.

In any case, I don’t have close enough middle eastern relatives to explain either my autosomal or MTDNA results and I can’t tie the two together in any meaningful way. My MTDNA story ends up being just one of a number of possible explanations. It is just another speculation. It’s possible, but who could say if it was real?

Why do we do this Every Time?

I’m not the only person who regularly does this. It seems pretty common. Almost universal. Even for skeptics and scientists, the pull to localize information is evident. Why do I or we as people do this so often? Why do we bend time and logic to force these connections? Why do we make everything about us?

I think, in a basic way, it has a little to do with how we look for meaning and significance and in finding those things, validate our idea of ourselves and others.

I’ll save that for next time.



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