Genetics, history, and the Magellan Project  

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

Last week in Cebu was a week of genetics and history. On a personal note, I was consulting with two families on genetic genealogy. One family wants to prove their relationship with other families sharing their Chinese surname. The other family wants to solve a century-old mystery surrounding their ancestor's paternity. I advised both families to use the Y-DNA test, which will trace the relationship of men with other men if they share a common paternal descent.

Since the Y chromosome is passed only from father to son, only men can take it as women do not have Y-DNA. The results of both cases, especially the latter, would be very fascinating and make genetic genealogy a useful tool for proving histories in the Philippines. Genetic testing has been used by other countries for years and has solved historical mysteries and dead ends. For instance, in the ‘90’s, the late Prince Philip’s blood proved conclusively that the bodies found in Ekaterinburg were those of the Russian imperial family, and his DNA also disproved Anna Anderson’s claim to be Grand Duchess Anastasia.

The other activity involving both DNA and history last week was the Human Diversity in the Space of Magalhães Circumnavigation: Genetics, History, and Culture project, headed by Dr. Luisa Pereira and funded by Portugal. Dr. Pereira is one of Europe’s leading population geneticists. So, last March 11th, I answered questions about my diet and had my blood, spit, hair, and other basic medical information and samples taken. The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc. in Cebu, together with the Davao Medical School Foundation, collected the samples and will be collaborating with their counterparts from Portugal, France, Chile, Indonesia, and Sweden. The project will apply a multidisciplinary approach using biology-human population genetics, anthropological history, geography-population dynamics, and arts and science communication-translation for lay language and visual narratives which will center on contact between different groups encountered during Magellan’s trip and subsequent representations of human diversity.

It will further study human variability across space, from Europe to America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and back to Europe, as well as across time, by comparing populations and their dynamics from the early 16th century to the present. For the Philippines, Cebu is the target population. Other populations to be sampled are from the Mediterranean Basin, Brazil (Rio de Janeiro), Argentina (Santa Cruz, Patagonia), Marianas (Guam), Brunei, Moluccas (Tidore), Timor, and Cape Verde (Santiago Island).

The collected data (like skin, eyes, and hair color, metabolism, and body proportions) will characterize the inhabitants of these places. The globalism of Magellan's voyage will allow us to catch up with the greatest diversity for these phenotypic traits in humans, while comparisons with native populations, as typical of the diversity found in 1519-1522, will contribute to a depiction of the last 500 years. The project hopes to demonstrate to the public how genetic advancements shed light on our recent origins, in which adaptation to various environmental conditions and selective forces accounts for a large amount of variety. The historical and anthropological value of the project will be evaluated through ethnographic study on the political and cultural processes embodied in public memorialization. The combined study of memory and genetics also plays an essential role. Finally, the team will distribute and build communication initiatives that will use educational and artistic strategies to communicate project outcomes and engage society in multiculturalism and equality based on a range of concepts.

The project’s ultimate goal is to help debunk racial biases and beliefs that still precede diversity in the human species and Magellan’s voyage, regarded from different perspectives can help address public misconceptions on human diversity, ranging from biology to politics. Thanks to modern technology, many historical questions and mysteries may now be put to rest with the use of DNA testing and allow us to understand our past and future better.


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