An Englishman Finds His Roots in East Africa

Jonathan Gornall

AFP Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer /Getty Images

Who am I? It’s a question we seldom ask ourselves but one I had been obliged to confront last week by a curious coincidence.

Last summer, as part of research I was doing for a book about the Viking occupation of England between the 9th and 12th centuries, I had my DNA analyzed. My father’s family had come from a part of the UK heavily populated by the invaders-turned-settlers and I wanted to know if Scandinavian DNA featured in my genetic code.

It does. Alongside my predictably predominant British, French and German genes, with a side-order of Spanish and Portuguese, I am 12.1 percent Scandinavian. That, perhaps, explains my fondness for Ikea.

The finding was intriguing, but nothing as thought-provoking as the follow-up email from genomics company 23andme that arrived last week with the subject line “We recommend checking out one of your unread reports.”

I had just been reading the news about the latest disaster to befall migrants attempting to find new lives unblighted by war, hunger and poverty. In stormy weather, 20 people had set off from a French beach on October 27 to cross the English Channel in a hopelessly inadequate boat. Fifteen were rescued when the boat sank and four bodies were recovered from the water – Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, Anita, nine, and Armin, six. An infant, Artin, was missing – five years on from the death of Alan Kurdi, one more small corpse to be washed up on a European beach.

Anxious to escape the horror, I clicked on the link to my neglected DNA report and read the following unexpected message: “You descend from a long line of women that can be traced back to eastern Africa.”

When it comes to understanding who we are, most of us are content to embrace our latest version – the “us” represented by our passports, the flags that fly over the country in which we were born and the facial characteristics we share with our family members and wider communities.

Beyond that we take our affiliations on trust, even though history teaches us that the nationalities that underpin our identities, and to which so many cling chiefly for the purpose of excluding others, are little more than politically expedient constructs.

My “Britishness,” for example, is a blend of origins unacknowledged as being relevant to my identity, courtesy of the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans who passed this way, leaving their imprint on my genes.

That is my history. And then, in the report from 23andme, I discovered my prehistory.

Most of our genomes exist in pairs of chromosomes whose pieces get shuffled around from generation to generation. Mitochondrial DNA, however, which is passed down from mothers to their children, is never reshuffled, and this makes it possible to trace ancestral origins back over tens of thousands of years.

The trail is signposted by the genetic markers of haplogroups, families of lineages that descend from a common ancestor. Like all living people today my deepest roots lie in haplogroup L, a lineage that began with a single woman who lived in east Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.

My particular branch of haplogroup L is L3, descended from a woman who lived in east Africa later, between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago.

At some point, her descendants became migrants, crossing from Africa into the Arabian Peninsula, either via the Sinai Peninsula or across the Red Sea by boat, probably at the narrow strait between modern-day Yemen and Djibouti – a strip of water about as wide as the English Channel at its narrowest point.

L3 in turn gave rise to haplogroup W, centered on a woman who is thought to have lived in the Middle East almost 20,000 years ago. In genetic terms, this is my maternal haplogroup. Over time its descendants spread out from the Arabian Peninsula, heading east through Mesopotamia and into Iran and India, and north through the Caucasus into Russia and Europe.

Today, haplogroup W is found most commonly in the Middle East and south-central Asia, particularly among the Sindhis of southern Pakistan, in northwest India and among the Kurds and Mazandarani of northern Iran. It is, says 23andme, also “sprinkled at low levels around the rest of Eurasia and found at single-digit percentages in central Asia, along the Atlantic coast of Europe and in Finland.”

My mind wandered back to the latest group of migrants drowned in the Channel, who risked and lost their lives solely because they wanted to be me – or, at least, to live a life blessed with the same benefits I enjoy. On this occasion, the migrants were Iranians, but there is a steady stream of the desperate making their way to the Channel from across North Africa and the Middle East.

Despite the tragedies, Europe’s doors remain firmly closed, with the authorities in Britain refusing to entertain asylum applications from abroad and leaving those hopeful of starting a new life in the UK with no choice but to risk disaster in pursuit of their dreams. To those so determined to keep them out that they appear to regard the drowning of other people’s children as an acceptable cost of doing so, they are the “other” – the “them” to our “us.”

We can learn little from our histories, beyond the fact that they are frequently flawed and open to manipulation. But the truth about our past is written incorruptibly in our DNA and the lesson it teaches us is this: there is no them and us. Just us.


Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.