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The Geiger Counter

A love story, courtesy of a Neanderthal

 

August 10, 2017



When I was little, detecting the blood an Englishman was exclusively the purview of cranky giants who lived atop magical beanstalks. But the world has changed.

These days, all you have to do is spit into a vial and mail it to a group of regular-sized scientists. They’ve cracked the human genome, and they can look at your DNA and tell you all kinds of things.

Some, when you learn them, seem very much like medical diagnoses. Others, like the fact that I have an inordinately large amount of Neanderthal DNA, don’t feel too substantively different from those “your mama” jokes I once endured from other children.

If you want to know how many Neanderthal genes I have, the answer is probably “more than you.” More than 84 percent of the people tested actually, and the sample size was enormous. I have 302 genetic variants that can be traced back directly to those cave dwellers. We troglodytes are notoriously bad with numbers, but even I know that’s a lot.

To me, the news came as something of a surprise. Perhaps it was less of a shock to the many girlfriends, schoolteachers, and literary critics who, despite no laboratory or advanced understanding of genetics, have been implying this for years. It certainly explained why I like cave paintings so much.

Before my stout, heavy-browed progenitors died out, they interbred with my Homo sapiens ancestors, hence the traces of them in the DNA in my spittle. Most non-Africans today have some Neanderthal DNA. Most sub-Saharan Africans have little, or none. I, apparently, have a lot.

Up until now, I always chose to focus on my Norse heritage. Those Vikings seemed like my cool ancestors. With bone beads dangling in their beards as they stood in the prow of a dragon-led longboat, hands clutching heavy axes, crashing, falling and rising on their way through a salty ocean mist, as they embarked on conquest and adventure. They filed their teeth to little, bloody stumps, a painful process that drastically shortened their lives, for no other reason than to terrify their enemies with the knowledge that they were willing to drastically shorten their lives for no good reason.

“If I’m willing to do this to myself, just imagine what I’ll do to you,” those bloody teeth told their foes.

Even their gods were cool. They had names like Odin and Thor, and they loved to fight, drink and party. I knew they weren’t my only ancestors, but I figured their genes, being made of fire, iron and ice, would have sacked and pillaged any non-Viking DNA in me.

They came up with the best names. Names like “Skull Splitter” and “Fork Beard” and “Blood Axe.” One of their leaders was called “Ivar the Boneless,” which some people think refers to missing limbs, and others think it means he had a rare genetic disorder.

Vikings were crazy and wild, and they were my great, great grandparents many times over.

Except they aren’t.  Not to any spectacular degree, at least.

My DNA revealed I’m only 14 percent Scandinavian. Most of my ancestors are genetically English and Irish. That means they were the ones being raided by Vikings, not the ones doing the raiding. It means most of my ancestors weren’t standing in the prow of a boat, crashing through stormy seas, with blood dripping from their teeth. No, most of my ancestors were harvesting wheat in their little villages, praying the furious men of the North would not cleave them in twain and take all seven of their earthly possessions.

Then, at some point, their vastly different cultures came together. Some invaders stayed and settled and farmed. People – people who had been sworn enemies - loved each other, and they had children together. Today, for all our fancy, genome-cracking scientists and our explosion of knowledge and progress, we can’t even get people with slightly different political beliefs into the same room with one another. Conservatives can’t tolerate people who don’t believe in the exact same version of the Christian god as them. Liberals brag about how outraged they are by everything that exists outside the margins of their narrow worldview, accusing anyone without an identical philosophy of being a bigot, and somehow doing it without a hint of irony.

These days, a Methodist and a Lutheran being civil to one another feels like real progress. And they are reading from the same bible, in the same language, about the same god, while wearing the same clothes and eating the same food.

A thousand years ago, an ox herd or cheese maker who believed in Jesus fell in love with a raider Viking who believed in Thor and Odin. They spoke different languages, wore different clothes, and yet somehow they settled down together, living, laughing, eating and drinking under the same roof. He would kneel down in a Christian church, and she would look on and think, “Oh, so this is where you go to take refuge from death and oblivion.” He would see her clutching a figure of Freya on her sleigh pulled by cats, and think the same thing. In the blink of an eye, mortal enemies became friends. Their children became adventurers and emigrants, and they encountered other, equally foreign gods and people. How else do you explain the smattering of Native American/East Asian and Ashkenazi Jewish DNA in my saliva?

My DNA unlocked even more secrets. Through my mother’s “haplogroup,” it traced me back to a single woman who lived some 11,000 years ago. Her ancestors migrated into Europe from the Middle East as the Ice Age receded. Her children’s children’s children eventually ended up in a field in Britain, drinking ale for breakfast and hoping not to see dragon-studded ships rising out of the sea that day. Their descendants would eventually board different ships and head west, to a New World.

And now, here I am today, living in the middle of that New World as it slowly grows old.

Going back some 40,000 years, I’m the baby of a Neanderthal and a modern human, who came together through what was surely a mixture of brutality, pure chance, and hopefully love. After all, that’s how we all live, and that’s how DNA mingles. A man and a woman joined together to produce offspring, and in addition to having different gods, different languages, and different bone structures, they probably weren’t even the same species. Yet once again, being together, being loved and sharing shelter, food, stories and DNA, was far more important than their many stark differences. They only had a few things in common, but one of them was the capacity to love, and that mattered more than everything else.

While all this Neanderthal DNA does make me wonder why I’m allowed to vote, it adds an almost infinite prologue to my story. And stories, even more than flesh and blood, are what we are all made of.

I like the story. It’s exciting, surprising and terrifying with splashes of beauty and splendor at just the right moments. Anyone who tells you we’re all the same is selling something. Anyone who claims that 7 billion people, with all their different foods, gods, rituals, genders, sexualities, races and languages, are all “the same” is making a comically dangerous oversimplification. We are not all the same. We’re not even all equal. Some have power, some have health, some have poverty and disease. Some are right, and some are wrong. But we come together, again and again, despite - even because of - our many differences.

As a Neanderthal living in a world of modern humans, I sometimes get the urge to take refuge from the swirling madness around me. I want to run off and hide in a dark, quiet cave somewhere. But if I did, I’d probably mash up some berries and start telling a story on the rocky wall there. A story about the many kinds of people, who have so few things in common yet can’t keep their hands off one another. When it was done, I would look at it and realize it was a love story. Then I would grunt, smile, and lumber off to search for food.

About the author: Matt Geiger is the winner of numerous journalism awards and a finalist in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. His debut book, “The Geiger Counter: Raised by Wolves & Other Stories” was published by HenschelHaus in 2016. Find out more at http://www.geigerbooks.com.

 
 

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