I have just finished reading ‘The Human Inheritance; Genes, Languages and Evolution‘ edited by Bryan Sykes. If you love reading everything about genes, ethnic origins, and languages, you will love this book. Although there is scientific jargon throughout (if your mind doesn’t have a scientific bent) it is easy to comprehend. Set out in brief chapters, each written by scientific experts in various fields, it explains how languages evolve as well as genetic mutations, which enable scientists to track differences, and similarities, between populations from around the world. With these processes, scientists can, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, tell us which part of the world a particular group of people originated from thousands of years ago.
For instance, I was especially fascinated by the chapter entitled Human Genetic Diversity and Disease Susceptibility. I wont talk about the latter part here, because I want to dwell on how stupid is the concept of racism.
In this chapter, Walter Bodmer writes about the time he and other scientists were making a documentary about population studies for the BBC in London. During their studies, they discovered that Greek Cypriots had an essentially identical frequency of genetic variants as Turkish Cypriots. These were markedly different from the comparable frequency distributions amongst people on the mainlands of Greece and Turkey. Mr Bodmer points out that this clearly indicates that the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are part of the same population ie a Cypriot population, which is neither Greek nor Turkish. This was astonishing to the Orthodox Greek Cypriots involved in the studies who believed that they were generational Greeks. It was explained to them that their Greek culture has most probably been acquired by a process called ‘elite dominance’, much the same process by which indigenous languages are taken over by a dominant one. This refers to the situation whereby a small number of usually aggressive invaders impose their culture, but do not contribute many of their genes to the population that they have so strongly influenced with their culture.
“It seems that wherever there are political problems between population groups, they are often between those peoples that are most similar to each other genetically”, quotes Mr Bodner.
Most people know that the Ottoman Turks were the last invaders of Cyprus and they still occupy a third of the Island while the Greeks occupy the other two-thirds. Apart from the influx of Turkish nationals from the mainland, and a few other nationals, the islanders share the same genetic history, all descendants of the Myceneans. The island’s history can be traced back 10,000 years and has been invaded countless times including by Alexander the Great, Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Romans, Arabs and Venetians. Even the Christian Crusaders took over the island at one stage. As far as linguistics go in Cyprus, the dialect is reportedly more similar to Classical Greek in vocabulary and grammar than that spoken in Greece. The island’s isolation helped develop many linguistic characteristics.
I read The Seven Daughters of Eve, before The Human Inheritance, because I was interested in my own diverse ethnic heritage. Bryan Sykes reveals how the identification of a particular strand of DNA that passes unbroken through the maternal line allows scientists to trace our genetic makeup all the way back to prehistoric times; to seven primeval women ie the “seven daughters of Eve”. Pretty amazing stuff really!
-Anne Frandi-Coory 12 April 2011