Spit Points the Way

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January 31, 2012

When we were kids, my brothers and I spit a lot. Our spitting styles varied in volume, range, and sound but had the same goal: create tough-guy facades. In those days of grappling with budding masculinity, I could not have foreseen that the spit I sent flying so often would mean so much now. Saliva of all things has opened a crack in the towering black wall that hid my very distant past, revealing a path to nameless, faceless ancestors.

The crack is my DNA, identified and analyzed via spit samples I sent to the company 23andMe. Among other things, 23andMe pinpointed the distinct genetic threads of my parents that trace back to two radically different times, places, and cultures. Some 10,000 years ago, as sea levels rose dramatically as the Ice Age ended, the North Sea swallowed the likely home of my father’s ancestors, a vanished place sometimes called the Stone-Age Atlantis. Doggerland was sandwiched between modern-day Denmark, The Netherlands, and United Kingdom, and was a place of natural bounty that National Geographic has visualized. My mother’s ancestors, the reviled and persecuted Roma people, often called gypsies — fled Eastern Europe for Portugal around the 15th century. They arrived in Europe from India more than 1,000 years ago. My mother’s genetic subgroup is among the smallest so far identified, and my father’s is the most prevalent in Europe today.

Armed with this information, I find myself wondering how these backgrounds influenced my parents, who had no inkling of their deepest roots. It’s difficult not to ascribe characteristics to them based on what little is known about their ancestors. My father loved the water so much that he made sure his sons were raised on the shore of a Florida lake. We visited the ocean often as well. With all her qualities my mother had a fiery, mercurial temperament and other traits that one might associate with the stereotypical image of gypsies. Have two people so different ever married?

The genetic path I explore through them stretches far back, past darkness. Much searching remains. The path also leads in the other direction, to me, and forward beyond the horizon.

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