Irish Genealogy: Caveman genealogy

Neanderthals: I do see a bit of a resemblance.

According to Wikipedia, the Neanderthals are an extinct species of humans, but I don’t think that can be right. After all, I’m Neanderthal, or, at least part Neanderthal. It might not be much, but it’s 2.9 percent of my DNA, and that’s a lot more than my African DNA, which is 2 percent.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it is easy to be surprised by the ethic groups they assign you to — my girlfriend, as an example, turned out to have a significant Croatian background, which she did not know about — in fact, she knew very little about the Croatian people as a whole. I am, speculatively, 0.2 percent Scandinavian (a lot of this science is still speculative), which I did not know about, but am going to go ahead and credit to Vikings, because until I hear otherwise, that seems like the most fun option.

I don’t know that Neanderthal is an ethnic group, properly speaking. Indeed, I knew very little about them before I found out I was one, in part. I didn’t know that they were first discovered in the Engis Caves in Belgium in 1829. I didn’t know that some Neanderthals had red hair and pale skin, and may in fact be where these traits originated.

I find myself very interested in the Neanderthals now, and will continue to learn about them. It is one of the oddities of coupling genealogy with DNA testing — we wind up knowing a lot about our immediate ancestors, and then suddenly we race back in time to our very ancient ancestors. It’s as though we were allowed to visit a library, but the books there start with a very general introduction, skip every single chapter but for the very last one, which is overflowing with detail.

There is a DNA test that I have not done yet, but plan to, offered by the National Geographic Society and called the Genographic Project Kit. Its exclusive goal is to look back on the ancient history of mankind, and how we traveled through time to our current destination. I would be interested to find that out.

We Irish have myths about where we come from. We do not believe we were the original inhabitants of the island, but that there were an older, magical people there, called the Tuatha Dé Danann, themselves invaders who had taken the Island from two successive generations of inhabitants. We are the Milesians, or Gaels, and we are supposed to have come from the ancient Near East. We traveled westward for 440 years and finally conquered Iberia. There we saw Ireland from a very high tower and sailed to it, conquering it from the Tuatha Dé Danann.

That is strikingly similar, in general terms, to what the Irish DNA currently seems to show — that they came came from the ancient Near East, traveled across Europe, settled in Northern Spain, and then inhabited Ireland. I suspect the specific details are mythical — it has the Gaelic language crafted from the languages that resulted from the fall of the Tower of Babel, and has the Irish leaving Egypt with the Israelite — but it is still amazing that we seem to have maintained a mythical account of our origins that follows the general contours of history.

I’ll be interested to eventually take National Geographic’s test and place my genetic line on those same contours. Of course, my hope is that I have a little Tuatha Dé Danann blood in me. Why not? If I can be part caveman, I don’t know why I couldn’t be part myth.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.