Genetic Determinism of Geographical Obsessions?

When I finally got meaningful test results for autosomal DNA, more than six years had passed since I first learned of Josiah Dunlow’s reputed half-Indian or full blood status. The finding that my genes were 1/16 East Asian was equally frustrating and satisfying. Satisfying in that it provides confirmation of non-European ancestry; frustrating in that the test’s inability to distinguish East Asian from Native American ancestry had been an object of frequent customer complaint and was now illustrated by my results. (I got an email from an equally frustrated customer of Eastern European ancestry and family traditions of Mongolian admixture, whose results were 94% EU and 6% NA!) The EuroDNA 1.0 test persuaded me to take more seriously a suspicion that had been steadily growing for months yet I had kept dismissing as too unscientific and embarrassing to express in print. Any author whose last book was a sympathetic account of Edgar Cayce is in danger of being considered too woo-woo to be taken seriously as a scholar. And yet here I am reluctantly giving credence to a theory as woo-woo as anything Cayce said in trance. Somehow, our obsessions with specific places and peoples and our travel compulsions are rooted in our DNA. It sounds insane but the evidence is starting to be overwhelming. I have visited 14 foreign countries; some left me cold and only three inspired what I would consider long term love affairs.  My first love was France, which I visited five times between 1984 and 1990 for stays of a week or two. It was twenty years after my first trip to Europe that I learned about French ancestry; just a few lines but enough to ground my feelings for the French in family history. The only country I ever stayed more than a month was India in 1990. And only this month did I receive DNA results showing more than 1/16 of my ancestry to be South Asian. But after that one trip, my travel interest shifted to Mexico; between 1991 and 1998 I made five substantial journeys there plus a couple of border hops from Texas. It was not until three years after my last trip to Mexico that I learned of traditions about Amerind ancestry in my father’s family. And only this month that it was partially confirmed by more than 1/16 East Asian DNA which in light of genealogical and historical evidence can only mean Native American. Although I only visited Spain once, I felt as home there as I had in France. As for other European countries I visited, I felt very ill at ease in Germany, and cool toward Switzerland and Iceland. I never had any inkling of desire to see Slavic countries, Scandinavia, the Arab world, East Asia, or Africa. And none of those places (assuming the EA score to be mistaken) figures at all in my DNA. My haplogroup R1b predominates in France, Spain, and the British Isles, which seems eerie in light of my feeling so at home there and so not at home elsewhere in Europe.

Domestically, the picture is similar. Discount my general interest in northeastern North Carolina which started in the early 1980s and went into overdrive in 2001. That could be attributed to my knowledge of having roots there. But other things of which I was ignorant seem to have blindly driven me. When I left my native Hampton Roads in 1984, it was because I felt strongly drawn to the counties between the James and the North Carolina line: Isle of Wight, Surry, Sussex, and Southampton, all served by the public library system I directed from 1984 to 1988. I used to compulsively ride the back roads of those counties, twenty years before I learned that much of my traceable 17th century colonial ancestry was in Isle of Wight and Surry.  My brother might also be an example of this kind of blind compulsion. All that my mother’s father knew about his ancestry was that his gg grandfather Enoch Rice had settled in Ohio around 1820, and that he was a Welshman who had previously lived in Vermont and Canada. But my genealogical investigations quickly led to the discovery that Enoch was a Massachusetts native whose family had been in the colony for a century before his birth. While I’m a Southerner with a general distaste for things Northern, including the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, New England was always different; from my first trip there as a teenager I loved it. But my brother did so far more than I; he went to Massachusetts to live 32 years ago and has never left; he travels below the Potomac only rarely and reluctantly. Only after 25 years there did he learn through me of our hundreds of ancestors in colonial Massachusetts.

The sense of being magnetically drawn to ancestral haunts got a lot more specific for me recently thanks to a brick wall breakthrough that led to discovering my direct ancestors Abraham and Judith Sanders who built what is now known as the Newbold-White House in Perquimans County, North Carolina.  It is the oldest surviving structure in the state, and in the early 1980s I became so enchanted with it that I toured it twice by myself and went back twice more with friends and relations in a one year period, something that is true of no other place in the state. Back then its original builders were not known as the estimated date of the house was off by 50 years; only recent dendrochronology established its 1730 date and thus its first inhabitants the Sanders family.  If we are somehow drawn to reconnect with our ancestors recent and remote by traveling to places they lived, even when those ancestors are unknown to us, it is very hard to explain naturalistically. How in the world could such a blind compulsion be carried in our genes? This takes discredited Lamarckian evolution and cubes it, making genes carry not just acquired physical traits but acquired cultural traits. Irrational theories about race and identity have a justifiably nasty reputation thanks to the Third Reich and some right wing occultists. And yet this notion resonates with the spiritual metaphor of the journey back to the Source. The way up is the way down, according to Heraclitus.  Perhaps the “way down” to our ancestral landscapes becomes a “way up” to historical awareness.

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