Monday, March 25, 2013

The DNA of Thomas Jefferson: [Insert Shocking Title Here]

   I’ve been creative with the titles of my articles in the past. It is the first thing people see and it better be eye catching. It’s been said that I'm ‘intentionally provocative’. I enjoy writing about topics that make people think. I draw the line at faulty logic. Many times, I'll draw conclusions from circumstantial evidence, but I always strive for a logical argument.

   Thomas Jefferson was part of the rare y-DNA haplogroup T (formerly K2) and much has been written about his genetics. Not everything written has been logical in its assumptions. Sometimes the story lines misinterpret the underlying science.

“Was Thomas Jefferson the first Jewish President?”

“Thomas Jefferson was Phoenician.”

“If Jefferson was Phoenician, then Charlemagne was also.”

“Thomas Jefferson could have recent origins in the Middle East.”

“Thomas Jefferson’s DNA traced back to Egypt.”

   In these situations the writers took a single data point and ran with it out of context.

   When we look at Jefferson’s DNA and compare it to available records, we only get a handful of matches that don’t tell a complete story. Let’s look at the first headline – was Jefferson Jewish? He didn’t practice Judaism and he wasn’t raised Jewish. He does have one genetic cousin who is a Moroccan Jew, but you have to go back about 2,000 years to find a common ancestor. While haplogroup T does have origins in the Middle-East, I wouldn’t say that it is definitely a Jewish haplogroup. If Jefferson were J1b2, there would be a stronger case tying him to the kohanim Jewish paternal lines. Jefferson also has a Belgian genetic cousin. Perhaps the headline should have been – Was Thomas Jefferson the first Belgian President? Not that exciting. Probably wouldn’t have sold very well.

   Thomas Jefferson was a Phoenician! There are many articles attributing this statement to Spencer Wells as part of his In Search of Adam program in 2005. I can’t find one quote that actual has Wells saying this. In fact in 2008 Wells argued that the Phoenicians were haplogroup J2. Jefferson’s haplogroup T is found in the same places and at the same times as the Phoenician Mediterranean colonies. This may indicate that Jefferson’s ancestors travelled with the Phoenicians as a peer or as a slave. I don’t think that ethnicity by association works.

   If Jefferson was a Phoenician, then so was Charlemagne. This is just plain and simple poor logic and a misunderstanding of genetics. As I mentioned, it doesn’t appear that haplogroup T is Phoenician. While Jefferson may be a descendant of Charlemagne, he is not a direct male descendant. You really need to be a direct male descendant to prove that an ancestor has the same y-DNA. One sample would never be enough to prove Charlemagne’s DNA. Multiple descendant samples and very strong genealogies are required to come close to determining an ancestor’s DNA. You never know where a non-paternal event may pop up.

   Could Jefferson have recent origins in the Middle East? This writer never actually defines recent. We are left to wonder if the Jeffersons lied on their Naturalization applications. Based on ‘time to most recent common ancestor’ calculations, I’d put Jefferson’s ancestors in the Middle East about 3,000 years ago. I guess that’s fairly recent compared to the age of the universe.

   Jefferson’s DNA traced to Egypt! One record match does not make an origin. That one Egyptian genetic cousin actually clusters better with other Moroccan records. This could indicate a back migration from Morocco to Egypt for that one person. A rule of thumb when determining origins is to find clusters of records. Jefferson does have a cluster on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar. This provides a strong argument that Jefferson’s ancestors came through that region and perhaps loitered there for a while. That doesn’t make it his origin.

   How should we define Jefferson’s origins? It is important to define origins with context. Where in Britain did the Jeffersons come from? One biographer puts Jefferson’s family origins in Wales. Jefferson’s closest British genetic cousin comes from Yorkshire and the Jefferson surname has the highest distribution in Yorkshire. We are still talking about a single point of reference, so I won’t fall into the same trap and pronounce Thomas Jefferson a Yorkie. I can say that it appears that the Jeffersons were British and that the family had been in Britain for at least a 1,000 years. There’s just not enough data to be more certain.

   Jefferson’s tribal DNA does leave a sparse trail of breadcrumbs across Europe in the 1,500 to 2,000 years ago range. There are genetic matches that become increasingly more distant in Belgium, France and Spain. We could connect-the-dots and we probably wouldn’t be far off the migration path. For Jefferson’s European origins, we might say his ancestors were Iberian. If we go back another 500 years, the picture changes to a culture that traveled the Mediterranean. The genetic breadcrumbs are in Morocco, Sicily, Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey. We could talk about Jefferson’s haplogroup T origins. A cluster of data suggests a southern Arabian Peninsula origin about 8,000 years ago.

   If we continue backward in time, Jefferson’s ancestors came from East Africa just like everyone else on the planet. Which ‘origin’ you choose for Jefferson is completely up to your specific agenda. I use genetic genealogy to get a better understanding of the world that we live in and the things we have in common as one species. We may learn through DNA that our ancestors sacked Rome or pillaged the coast of England. That’s history, that’s fascinating, but that’s not who we are today. Unless you personally choose to embrace that history. Jefferson’s distant ancestors may have been Jewish, Phoenician or Egyptian, but that’s not who he was.

   We shouldn’t persecute for the sins of our ancestors or sit on the laurels of their accomplishments. We need to keep moving forward in a positive direction.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Imagine: A New Kind of Family History

   At RootsTech there is a theme running through the entire conference, capturing the stories of our ancestors. If we don’t document their lives, how will anyone ever know that they existed? We can create digital videos, record audio conversations and write down anecdotes about our living relatives. We can collect facts and stories about our deceased family. How do we take this one step further and make their lives interactive?

   Imagine if you were able to sit down at your computer, click an icon on the desktop and have what appeared to be a video chat with a family member who is no longer with us. Would it be creepy? My wife thinks it would be. Would it be possible? I think so. It could also be possible today.

   What I’m suggesting would give you the ability to have a conversation with an ancestor. Here’s what someone would need to make it work –
  • a photo of the person (more is always better) 
  • or a video (this will allow for more natural facial expressions)
  • audio recordings 
  • facts, anecdotes, stories, histories
  • an avatar builder
  • chat bot software
   Let’s start with the chat bot software.  There are some very sophisticated software programs that allow you to have a conversation with a computer and never realize that you are talking to a computer.  They are programmed so well as to seem intelligent.  The good ones learn from you the more you talk to them.  There are off the shelf chat bots that you can program with thousands of phrases.  Let’s say that our chat bot has access to every story about your ancestor and data about the time period and location that they lived.
Next, get an avatar builder.  An avatar is basically a 3D head and shoulders that we can map either the photos or the video images to.  This will give us the most lifelike representation.  Just add audio and we have the voice.  The video of me below was created in an avatar builder.  The head turns, the eyes blink and the mouth moves as it speaks, all from one uploaded photo.

   Now click that icon on your desktop.  The application uses the computer camera to recognize you and when great-grandpa comes on the screen the first thing he says is, “Hi Mike, how’ve you been?”   It would be his face and his voice and it would be indistinguishable from a live video chat.  You could ask when he was born or for him to tell you about growing up in Boston in the 1920s. 

   This wouldn’t just be parroting back stored facts.  It could be designed to look at all the facts and be able to answer new questions.  It could be as simple as a familiar face to be a sounding board.  As you converse, the image would nod its head and tell you that you are doing a good job and that they are proud.  The software could learn from every new conversation and incorporate the data into its persona.

   We’ve been asked, “what should you leave for your grandchildren?”  My first instinct would be to leave a video of me telling the stories of my life.  What if I could leave a more interactive version of myself?  What may appear creepy today may seem perfectly normal in the future.

   Would you create a digital version of yourself to leave as your legacy?  I would.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

RootsTech: More 'Roots' Than 'Tech'?

   There is no doubt that RootsTech will be an amazing conference. There are over one hundred sessions and exhibitors. This will be my first RootsTech and my initial assumption was that there would be an abundance of Tech. Looking at the syllabus, I’m not sure that will be the case.

   I have to admit that I have some biases. I’m a techhead. When I think of technology, I think of science fiction. What does the future have in store for genealogy? If you say that all the records are now digital, I might yawn and ask – what took so long. While being digital is an aspect of technology, it is old news.

Read more at the In-Depth Genealogist...