Friday, 22 February 2013

Meet The Izzards

BBC1 screened a very interesting programme over the nights of Wednesday 20th February and Thursday 21st February 2013. In Meet The Izzards comedian, actor, and marathon runner Eddie Izzard used state of the art DNA analysis techniques to discover where his family originated from. The first programme dealt with his mother's line, while the second focused on his father's lineage. Each was extremely illuminating.

The start of the first programme promised an epic journey over ten thousand generations of ancestry, a task that can only now be completed for the first time using new DNA analysis techniques. Eddie began by visiting the genetic science department at the University of Edinburgh, where his DNA was analysed and recorded.

Genetic mapping involves discovering markers in shared DNA. Put very simply, these markers can denote ancestry in specific areas of the world at certain times. The marker 'L' is the earliest and refers to Africa and the origin of all human existence. Eddie's first stop on his journey was therefore Africa, specifically Namibia.

There he met a local tribe who taught him about their hunter-gatherer existence, which is very similar to how Eddie's ancestors would have lived two hundred thousand years ago. Eddie's second key marker revealed that his ancestors lived in East Africa around sixty thousand years ago, so that is where he travelled to next.

In fact, his destination was the point at which it is believed the earliest humans first left Africa. Eddie planned to retrace his ancestor's footsteps across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait into Yemen, where coincidentally he was born, however political unrest meant that he was unable to do so.

The next significant marker was from around eighteen thousand years ago in the Middle East. This is particularly important in the development of humankind, as it relates to the birth of agriculture. Eddie visited Turkey where he learnt about how humans overcame an intolerance to animal milk as a result of genetic changes. He also learnt that everybody with blue eyes, like Eddie himself, can be traced back to the Black Sea coast 10,000 years ago.

From here there were two main migration routes into Europe: into southern Europe, and into central and northern Europe. Eddie's direct ancestors on his mother's side moved north, specifically into Scandinavia. Since this marker relates to only 2000 years ago Eddie was able to meet people in Denmark who share direct genetic ancestors with him.

Eddie's next genetic marker on his mother's side was in England in around 500-1000AD, meaning most likely that he had Viking ancestors who travelled to the country during this time.

After exhausting his mother's lineage Eddie turned his attention to his father's DNA ancestry in the second episode of Meet The Izzards. Eddie's father had already managed to trace his family tree back to around 1650, but DNA analysis allows research to extend much further back into history, although not to the specificity of individual ancestors.

The oldest known marker of the male 'Y' chromosome dates to around 150,000 years ago in Cameroon, Africa. All modern males are genetically linked to this one ancestor. Eddie visited the Equatorial Rainforest to meet a local tribe and learn about hunting-gathering, much as he had done in the first episode. As with his maternal line, his paternal DNA shows that his ancestors crossed the Red Sea from Africa into Arabia.

A new piece of information, however, was that Eddie's DNA is 2.8% Neanderthal, which is higher than average. It is believed that Neanderthals, an entirely difference species from Homo Sapiens, were white in complexion and originated from Europe, whereas the earliest humans were black and from Africa.

Eddie's next important genetic marker, known as 'I2', links him to central Europe around 20,000 years ago. This was around the time of the last Ice Age, meaning that Eddie's ancestors would have had to have adapted well to the conditions in order to survive. After the end of the Ice Age Eddie's ancestors migrated to Saxony, and from there on to England as Saxons, most likely around 500AD.

Part travel show, part history lesson, Meet The Ancestors was both interesting and entertaining. It is fascinating to think that everybody on the planet is linked genetically if you go back far enough. If you missed the programme then I highly suggest you catch it on the BBC iPlayer, or alternatively check out the website.

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