donderdag 6 februari 2014

How the "click" was lost: DNA and historical racism

DNA and genetic studies represent a relatively recent breakthrough in modern science. In fact, it really only developed with the birth of “molecular biology”, around 1957. The study of “blood” (actually: genetic material from any body liquid, like saliva), and biological descent, has after that been put to use for practical and technical purposes: in law and medicine. Perpetrators can now be traced better, more secure, through their DNA. It helped to solve seemingly unsolvable crimes. Hereditary diseases can be examined also by studying one’s DNA: for instance to know of genetic health risks: required for instance when one wants to be a blood donor.

Another use of DNA that intrigues me a lot seems less practical and is more theoretical. This deals more with historical science: ethnicity, population groups, and ethnic mixture over time. It sheds new light on human history and genetic mixtures of the world. It makes tracing one’s family tree possible also for, for instance, descendants of African slaves in the Americas; at least more specific ethnic groups can now be traced as one’s origin, because of DNA. A welcome - and just - possibility for people who have been in history forcibly cut off from their family and genetic (thus: ethnic) history, because of slavery and forced deportation. Many people of African descent in the West also have some White/European blood, largely due to the fact that many slave owners or overseers (mostly male) fathered children among female slaves, and in rarer cases through (semi-)consensual relations, although there generally were power differences.


Interestingly, “ethnic” DNA studies dealing with the whole world, require also reconsidering age-old, ideological ideas living among nations and states about “our foreparents”. “Ideological” in the sense of national identity, that could take extreme forms of superiority delusion. Much sinister and evil use has been made of this: Nazi Germany being a notable example, and similar “racial purity” ideas were part of European colonialism, related to slavery and conquest, divide-and-rule policies in colonies, and in several nation states meant to exclude or oppress certain people. In Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, at one point strived to inquire if one was of “pure blood”, i.e. being Old Christians with no converted Jews or Muslims in the blood line. This added a racialist idea to religious fanaticism.

Maybe more innocent (though with possible racist effects), but nonetheless mistaken ideas live on in several countries of the world. Do – for instance - all French really have as foreparents the (Celtic) Gauls, and only those Gauls? Do all Italians descend mainly from Romans? Or Germans, English, and Dutch from Germanic people? This was until recently generally more or less taught in schools in these countries.

Written history – before DNA studies – already had established mixtures and casted doubts on too simplistic ideas of racial/ethnic “purity”. This got however mixed up with lies deriving from (political) ideologies. DNA therefore provides now a more secure, objective “proof” of which people and ethnic groups mixed over time in a certain region, and what that says about the local population’s history.


However, apart from these historical lies and ideologies propagated in specific European countries, the most profound knowledge and fact, affecting the whole of man kind!, that came with increased DNA study, is the confirmation of the genetic roots of man kind in Africa. Before this, the oldest remains of human beings, as we now know them, have of course also been found in Eastern Africa: Kenya and Ethiopia.

DNA studies likewise also traced the oldest human DNA to sub-Saharan, Eastern Africa, around Kenya. The present-day people with this oldest DNA include peoples like the Khoi San, and related peoples in Southern Africa (e.g. the Xhosa, the ethnic group of Nelson Mandela). These have languages known for their remarkable “clicks”, so rare in other languages. This brings me to an interesting hypothesis, a linguistic one: people with the oldest genetic material speak/spoke with “clicks” in their language: “later” people, including those that spread from Africa, for some reason have lost this “click” in their languages. Why? It is a sound which is easy to make.

All people in the world – no matter how blond or white - thus descend ultimately from an East African woman, that’s what DNA studies essentially has proven. From this early DNA, different, later DNA types developed over time. These DNA types became associated with specific regions and peoples. There is for instance a DNA haplogroup – as DNA subtypes are called – associated (roughly) with Berber peoples, other ones with Semitic peoples, the Middle East or Anatolia, the specific Central European/Celtic, Nordic/Germanic ones, also distinct Slavic, or Northern Spanish, Greek and Italic ones. Several distinct East Asian, Pacific Region, African, and Amerindian ones exist of course as well.

All these developed, however, over time from the oldest DNA of the type/haplogroup L, from sub-Saharan Africa.

I have read and studies much about this genealogy and DNA in its relation to human history in recent years. The Genographic project of National Geographic, on this theme, got my interest, even though it had a very broad – not specific - focus. Also, I found interesting a more specific DNA study: the already mentioned possibility to trace genetic forefathers of for instance African-descended people in the West, on which I saw also some engaging documentaries. This possibility is quite recent and intrigues especially because the African Holocaust destroyed family relations and meant the loss of African surnames. Unlike White people in the West, like the US, (or Indians and others) who largely maintained these bonds and knowledge thereof (orally and written). John Travolta knows for instance he is of Italian-Irish descent (probably also what part of Italy or Ireland) to give an example. Other White people have vaguer, but still traceable connections to Europe. Now, with DNA, it’s possible to know also more on the African Roots of Blacks in the West. This seems only fair.

Black US comedian Chris Rock, for example, traced through DNA his genealogical foreparents in part to the Udeme people of what is now Cameroon. Quincy Jones, on his mother's side, to the Tikar people of also what is now Cameroon. US comedian Chris Tucker to what is now Angola. Martin Luther King’s genetic foreparents were found in part among Mende-speaking people in what is now Sierra Leone.

Also Europe got my attention. Specifically also the countries I have something to do with: where my parents are from and I heard most of. My mother is for instance from (Southwest) Spain, my father from (North) Italy.


Spain is an interesting case, because the ideological “lies” spread by ruling powers have perhaps been stronger there historically. Spain (and Portugal) have been ruled by Islamic Moors from the 8th c. onward, up to the late 13th c. in the central and southern parts, and a southeastern part (Kingdom of Granada) up to 1492. Spain also had (since Roman times) a relatively large Jewish population.

After the Christian conquest from Northern Spain over time of the Iberian peninsula a fanatic Christianizing effort took place, of which the strict Inquisition was part. This led to expulsion of many Jews, Berbers, and other Islamic remaining people, if only in part. Though it is – probably for ideological reasons – propagated in official history writing that ALL Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain in or around 1492, in reality only a part was: many more or less converted and mixed with the local population. This was already assumed by more neutral historians, but recent DNA and genetic studies confirm this. Spaniards are genetically mixed, including Jewish, Berber and other non-European blood, mixed with Celtic, Roman, Greek, older European/Basque, Germanic and other blood.

This Christianizing effort tried to hide this, and propagated another national identity for Spain. Probably stimulated also by the imperialism/colonialism Spain and Portugal more or less inaugurated with Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. An ideological and “racial” distancing of non-European, non-White “heathens” - even if Africa is only about 14 kilometers away from Spain – was deemed necessary for that.


I recently went for a trip to Tenerife, one of the Canary islands. These became Spanish around that same year 1492 (after settlement with Portugal who already owned Eastern Atlantic territories). In relation to this ethnicity and DNA, Tenerife/the Canary Islands are also an interesting case. Having become Spanish at the dawn of Spain’s imperialism (1490s), the Canary islands served as a “testing ground” for Spain for the Americas. After being introduced by the Portuguese, slave trade in (Black) Africans, and enslaved Black Africans in the sugar industry more or less began for Spain on the Canary Islands. Later it continued on a larger scale in the Caribbean.

The Canary Islands were originally inhabited by peoples related to the present-day Berbers from Northern Africa, called Guanches. Though some sources said they were all wiped out (strange how regarding Spain’s history, population genocide is always stated in such “total” terms); in reality a large part of these Guanches mixed with Spaniards that settled on the islands, such as Tenerife, of whom many came from Andalusia or other parts of Spain. Some Black Africans were, as said, imported as well, and also some other Europeans, like Portuguese, settled there. A museum I visited on Tenerife sketched this history. All these populations mixed and resulted in the present-day Canarians.

I knew already some people from Tenerife, and having now been there, I saw indeed what I perceived as Berber traits among a part of the Tenerife people. Relatively stronger in more rural, mountainous part (and Tenerife is very mountainous). To differing degrees, I must say. Some mainland Spaniards from the South have these traits as well, so at times it was difficult to determine.

While in places like (South) Portugal, Extremadura, Andalusia, and other parts of Spain, Berber traits recur sometimes, as well as Semitic traits – confirmed by actual DNA studies - relatively many Canarians seemed overall dark Mediterranean, Berber-like types.


I would like to place these DNA studies and the new historical knowledge they provide further alongside a recent book I read: ‘Racisms : from the crusades to the twentieth century’, appeared in 2013. It was written by Francisco Bethencourt, and presented as “the first comprehensive history of racism”. This is quite a claim – perhaps for marketing reasons of course - since historical racism has been and is being studied by other scholars as well. Bethencourt takes in part a new, original stance, though.

He traces the history of racism, as ideas and practice, aimed at the exclusion of people because of descent, in Europe, from before the start of colonialism and during colonialism, as well as in other continents or historical epochs. He focuses most on the Western world. He discusses these political ethnic ideologies I mentioned already. Especially the period following Moorish (Islamic) rule in Spain and Portugal gets much attention. Not because racism started there: Bethencourt points at different sources and places (hence the plural Racisms of the title), but early forms of racism, based on descent developed there, mostly due to religious policies, like the Inquisition I already mentioned, distinguishing “Old” Christians from “New" Christians (converted Jews or Moors) based on descent, aimed at repressing and excluding. The Portuguese started trading in Black African slaves in the Eastern Atlantic even before Columbus went to the Americas, and this Bethencourt also discusses.

I heard some say that racism did not really exist against Black Africans until this slave trade and slavery in the Americas developed. Bethencourt confirms this in a way, though not totally. After discussing all types of racism: Inquisition, slavery, as part of colonialism in other continents, wars, in different parts of Europe, by Arabs, Roman times, Nazi Germany, against Amerindians, Asia, Africa, he comes to these main "concluding" arguments:


racism preceded any theories of race and must be viewed within the prism and context of social hierarchies and local conditions

and two:

in its various aspects, all racism has been triggered by political projects monopolizing specific economic and social resources”.

The first argument makes an intriguing distinction between racism and (semi-scientific) “theories of race” (superior and inferior, more animal-like races etc.). In Portugal ideas on Africans inferiority or animal-like status (“racism”) actually preceded their starting to trade in enslaved Africans and taking control of the Angola region, in the 14th c.. Later (quasi-) scientific racial theories only institutionalized these ideas. In other European countries like Spain, Italy, Germany, and France similar racist ideas existed, to differing degrees, even if then slaves were not just Blacks (as later). Also the Arabs, and some Moorish authorities in Spain, expressed ideas on Black inferiority, especially when the Arab slave trade increasingly involved Black Africans as slaves.

Spain’s Catholicism’s “purity of blood” ideas were the official norm, though with differing degrees of consistency or enforcement, and excluded and discriminated Jews and converted Moors (called “Moriscos”). Portugal meanwhile increasingly used Black Africans as slaves, a practice later taken over by the Spanish, and still later other European powers as the British, French, and Dutch.

All this shaped the racism inherent in the colonial project Spain and Portugal engaged in after Columbus (Italian/Genoese but in the service of the Spanish kingdom) “discovered” and claimed the Americas for Spain since 1492, of which a part (Brazil) would go to Portugal.

Northern Europe was before this not free of racism, and negative ideas on other races’ inferiority, existed also there, independent of Iberian developments. The Biblical use to defend slavery of black people (the curse of Ham idea), was probably first stated in the Netherlands, historians found.

However, European colonialism as such started earlier with Columbus, so to speak. So, in 1492. In slavery’s systematization and expansion, increasing the racial aspects, the Dutch and English were later also important, must be pointed out. Overall there is therefore not much use in trying to determine which European country was the most colonial and racist: there were different sources and conditions shaping it over time, in different parts of Europe and even outside it. Also, the Muslim and Arab behaviours and ideas after Islam’s rise can in part also be seen as definitely racist toward Black Africans, even after these converted to the Islam.

Jamaican poet and reggae artist Mutabaruka was, overall, in essence right when he stated in his poem ‘Columbus Ghost’, recalling this history, that with Columbus’s “discovery” in 1492 “White supremacy” really began. It did indeed initiate a lasting global inequality on racial (mixed with religious/cultural) grounds. This still is noticeable in today’s world and North-South relations.

An interesting read, overall, Bethencourt’s book, but it is history writing based on documented, “traditional” sources: DNA and genetical studies are not included (nor mentioned). These however can add some interesting insight to the historical developments, such as the ones he sketched about Spain (relatively much discussed in the book). Did such “purity of blood” policy have effect on the ethnic make-up of the present-day Spaniards? To what degree?

Early racism (mixed with religious fanaticism) as part of political projects – the “purity of blood” - were thus present in Spain and Portugal. Portuguese were furthermore early slave traders in Africans (bringing these also to Iberia). How does all this history as Bethencourt related, show in the current genetic and DNA characteristics of Spanish (and Portuguese) people? I’m curious about that.


My mother told me that in South Extremadura, close to the province of Córdoba, in Southwestern Spain, where she was from, there were both darker and lighter people, though blue eyes and light blond hair were unusual. Physical traits further also differed.

Having travelled throughout most of Spain and Portugal, I noticed all these differences too, alongside a dominant Mediterranean type. Genetic, DNA studies further give more insightful background information about this.

The specific DNA haplogroup/types associated with Berbers and Middle Eastern peoples are to be found - within Europe - presently relatively more in South Europe, especially Portugal and Spain, followed by South Italy. The L Haplogroup of the oldest DNA, from sub-Saharan Africa, is even found a bit there, while rare in the rest of Europe (it can be found among more recent African or Afro-Caribbean migrants in Paris, London, or Amsterdam of course).

The broader DNA haplogroup E1b1b: ( has many subtypes, but is partly associated with North Africa and Semitic peoples. It is overall - degrees differing per E1b1b subtype – overall among Europeans a bit more common among people in Southern Europe, as studies show, with intriguing regional differences in for instance Spain. Yet, this DNA haplogroup is not a strictly South European or Mediterranean affair, as the maps with frequency of the above link show. Some of these also spread as north as well into Germany , England, Austria, or Czechia for instance. That Hitler had this DNA type, which is also found relatively frequent among Jews, including Albert Einstein, can be considered ironic, but it is a broad haplogroup.

The specific M81 “Berber” subtype map among these – points most directly to North African (Berber) genetic influence in Europe, relatively more frequent in South Europe. Regarding Spain, it oddly is relatively frequent even where the Moors (who were partly Berbers) did not rule that long (North Castile/León, Galicia), along with more predictable southern parts (Extremadura, Western Andalusia). Around Granada less, maybe because of repression, forced migration…or the Inquisition’s focus..who knows. Bethencourt indeed relates how after a rebellion “Moriscos” around Granada were forcibly removed and dispersed throughout what was then the kingdom of Castile. The Semitic (African/Middle Eastern) M123 subtype/haplogroup is also interestingly found in some regions more than others, but is a bit more frequent overall in the southern half of Europe.

Berber genes, you can conclude are found among many Spaniards and Portuguese, not just in the Canary islands. Another recent study found that 20% of all Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) people have some Sephardic, Jewish ancestry in their DNA. A higher percentage than many expected, and also regional differences that many did not expect (more in rural Aragón than in “more international” Catalonia for instance, higher in rural Extremadura than in other places). Like many scientific studies, the results and methods are not uncontested, but they are intriguing. (entire study article in PDF)

Like I already concluded earlier in this text, and almost needless to say: Spaniards are not “of pure blood”, neither “Aryan”, as it is called (but which is really a nonsensical term). One must furthermore not forget that African and Middle Eastern (Semitic) genes might have entered Spain already well before Roman or Moorish times, seeing its location, and Phoenician/Carthaginian historical presence. So it can also be seen as separate from “arrival of certain religions” (Jews, Muslims).

Then again: no ethnic group or group of people in the world really is “of pure blood”, no matter how isolated.

Looking at all these results for Europe – and to the other haplogroups on the Eupedia website -, it seems hard to see some consistency, beyond general tendencies. It is still an interesting website where people can for instance look at DNA results in the geographic place where their family roots happen to lie (just like I did), but also to know about the world in general.

South Europeans have overall somewhat more Middle Eastern and African DNA, with intriguing regional differences within countries. It points at migrations and mixtures due to social changes over time: from Africa to (West) Asia, then to Europe, within Europe and regions etcetera.


There is one consistency, though. The main origin of all DNA in the L haplogroup of sub-Saharan Africa. Of all people in the world, including all Europeans. The Wikipedia article on this (Macro) L haplogroup is in this regard insightful. Again, a bit more found in Southern Europe (especially Iberia and South Italy), but indirectly at the root of all DNA of all Europeans and other humans in this world.

These DNA studies show that man kind thus comes from Africa, and all people are essentially mixed. This proves once again the stupidity of racism in general, and the evil, “political” use of its moderate or hidden variants like ethnic/racial ideologies in some countries/regions, leading to superiority senses many people apparently need to have. This increased with Europe’s colonial project since 1492, somewhat ironically pioneered by an Italian (Columbus) and by Portugal and Spain – all countries with intensely mixed DNA and relatively much African and Middle Eastern admixture – , in tandem with the rise of organized, repressive, “conquering” religions like Christianity and Islam. This led to racial and cultural divisions and inequalities among human beings, because of lust for power, competition, the will to gain more territory, and war. Or: “political projects monopolizing specific economic and social resources” as Bethencourt described an origin of racism in the aforementioned book.

In other words, the “click”- in the symbolic sense of an equal, harmonious relationship – was lost between “Whites/Europeans” and “non-Whites/non-Europeans". Parallel to how “the click” - literally, as sound in the languages spoken by the oldest DNA bearing people in Africa - was lost in most later human languages.