Origin Stories: Or, Making Sense of Surprises in the Family Tree

July 17, 2020

My Humanities Moment happened when my husband and I received the results of the genetic testing kits we’d ordered. The stories that my husband’s DNA told matched up pretty closely with his family’s history, but mine delivered some surprises. In addition to indicating a lot of northwestern European and Central European ancestors, which I expected, my report pointed to Scandinavian, West African, and North African ancestors! This all came as news to my whole family. We wondered: how did these encounters happen? What were the circumstances under which these distant and diverse relatives met? The map that accompanied my DNA results was particularly striking to me. I was amazed to see how my ancestors emerged over the course of the last several centuries from that violent, complex, and fascinating region of interaction that stretched up from the west coast of Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar, through Iberia into northern, central, and eastern Europe. My humanities moment came when I realized that although I may never know the details of my ancestors’ travels, I can indeed explain a lot of the context behind that map of my family’s origins. The migrations, the wars, the famine and curiosity and opportunities that pushed people out of one territory and into the next: I know those stories, because I am a historian! Trained in the history of the Atlantic world and now a university professor of world history, I rely on the humanities to help my students and myself interpret the past. Science can tell us a lot, but so can history. Data means little if we don’t know the context—the stories and histories—behind it. Humanities and the sciences can and should work hand in hand in our efforts to understand and explain the world we live in and our shared past.