Oct 23 2010

Islands of Humanity

Published by at 6:45 am
Under Archeogenetics | Environmental Genomics


he summer of 1968 beckoned and looked very promising. I had just successfully navigated the 5th grade and could anticipate balmy days spent butterfly collecting, trading comic books, listening to baseball on the radio, and playing afternoon stick-ball, a uniquely New York City street game involving a stick –usually appropriated from an unwatched broom– and a hard pink rubber ball manufactured by the AJ Spaulding Company universally referred to as a “Spalldeen.”


However my dreams for such a bucolic near future came to a screeching halt one afternoon when I was greeted by my little brother at the door with news that we would all soon be flying in an airplane! That sounded exciting enough, but further elaboration disclosed a darker truth: We would be flying to the village of my mother’s birth in North East Spain. My knowledge of the place was minimal at best: I had only seen rather quaint photographs with scallop-cut edges of what appeared to be a ramshackle, sleepy and sun baked town populated by sunburned farmers with dazzling white teeth clustering around a new tractor, scooter or calf. It looked foreign, smelly and somewhat ominous.

Soon enough we headed for the airport to begin our journey. Modern, security-frazzled, airline customers may not realize or remember just how much of an event traveling by airplane was in the mid 1960’s. Washed and scrubbed, wearing rayon shirts and thin ties, mother in Sunday best complete with pill box hat, we journeyed the Atlantic in the marvelous Boeing 707.

Fully jet-lagged we landed many hours later at Barcelona airport and were greeting by a deputation from the village, 150 screaming, waving and wildly gesticulating Catalans, for this was, as I would soon be told “Catalonia, not Spain.” From Barcelona we soon began our travels westward, into the Llobregat river valley and the mountains of the Montserrat, strangely carved peaks that are the results of eons of erosion by now-extinct giant rivers. This is an enchanted land; not for nothing are Catalan artists overrepresented in the Surrealist art movement.

Winding down roads of choking dust, we made our way to the town, or pueblo. Until then having grown up in the restrained, plasticized and sanitized habits that characterized the USA in the 1960’s, I was in no way prepared for the coarse, almost brusque mannerisms of these folks. The gesticulated wildly, seemed to argue about everything, screamed at each other from their windows and talked at an amazingly rapid-fire rate of delivery. It’s phenomenally fertile land, and the local people are rumored to be the only people in Spain who can “make bread out of stones.” The closest town, which is at the border between Catalonia and Aragon, was described as being “renowned for its figs, and the thick-headedness of the inhabitants.”

Culture shock soon set in. A shy kid to start off, I was soon just happy to find a quiet place and read my bon voyage present, a fortunately huge book on the battle of Gettysburg. Unlike my little brother, who was muy sympatico, eating in the café and yelling at the soccer games on the one TV like everyone else, I just felt alienated. One had to be careful with their choice of friends. The headless automaton jumping around my aunt’s kitchen spurting blood all over the place was just shortly before the chicken with two different colored eyes that I had so carefully observed that morning. Cute, friendly rabbits were soon rendered into grotesque hanging parodies of the “visible body” model that I had built that Christmas.

Being the wonderful people that they are, my family soon began to try to get me to come out of my shell. One of my uncles took notice of my liking of history, and soon we were off in his tiny car, visiting Visigoth and Roman ruins. Another uncle, a simple but lovable farmer, would take me out to his fields, hold a finger up to his lips so as to say “let’s keep this secret to ourselves” and begin pushing aside sagebrush, rubble and other weeds, revealing a lovely Roman husband and wife gravestone. Gradually, I began to open up to this wonderfully simple and pure world.

Around midday we would break for lunch and siesta, which never varied all that much; a medium sized fish, called a “sardine”, stuck on a branch and placed around perimeter of a small fire, some olives and almonds from the field, followed by a peach or pear. Since it was still too hot to go back to work we’d look at clouds or the distant hills and at one point I asked him what lay beyond those hills.

“Saragossa.” He said.

“And beyond that?”


“And beyond that?”

“The Basques. But they are different than us, and a little crazy.”

It would take a lot for a Catalan to call someone else “different”, and to a Catalan, the Basques may well be the only qualifying group. Like the Catalans, the Basques are very independent minded, with great cultural sensitivity and were consequently heavily repressed during the Franco dictatorship. Similarly, they have experienced a phenomenal cultural renaissance in the years following his death.

An ancient people, or more correctly a “people island,” they have resisted virtually all attempts at assimilation, forced or otherwise. In the Basque language there is no name for “Basque”. There is a name for the language that Basques speak, Euskera and a Basque is simply defined as a Euskaldun, someone who speaks Euskera.

But we would have to go back farther still to get a grip on the Basques. You have to go back to a very cold, dry time without agriculture. The Basques, you see, are sort of living fossils, probably the most direct link we genetically possess to a distinct people that can be traced back to the Pleistocene Age.

The upper right-hand corner of Spain has some of the most interesting dialects to be found in the world over such a small piece of geography. Catalan, the language of my family, is an ancient Latin derived tongue, probably closer to the Latin of the Romans than either modern day French or Spanish.

For a romance language, Catalan has a surprising number of consonants, with the free use of the letter x as an example. But for all its unique qualities, Catalan is a relative newcomer, the Romans having inhabited the area roughly two-thousand years ago. Prior to that the population was a hybridization of two earlier groups, rather short, dark haired and eyed indigenous people, called Iberians and taller, lighter transplanted Celts who arrived a few hundred years prior to the Romans in search (like their modern-day counterparts) of a warmer climate. These two groups intermingled freely, fused and produced what historians called the “Celt-Iberians.”

Yet these modern languages are distinct from Basque Euskera or any of the Semitic or African languages as well. English with it clipped and nasally sounds; German with its guttural mega words; French, with its mellifluous hints of romance and Hindi, with its beautiful Sanskrit writing all share Indo-European as a common ancestor.

In the early 1600’s Pierre De Lancre, a French witch hunter, speculated why the Basque area seemed to harbor so many witches. He thought the problem stemmed from their great numbers in the various Jesuit missionaries, with all their evangelizing, which had affected them with demons from far-off places that they had carried back to Spain. De Lancre also thought that their early adoption of tobacco use might also be working on their minds. He held Basque women in special contempt, saying that they produced only undersized and cursed children who died.

The Genetics of the Basques

As Mark Kurlansky recounts in The Basque History Of The World, this last accusation may have had a ring of truth to it, since Basques are renowned among anthropologists for their strikingly high percentage of individuals who have the Rhesus negative (RH-) blood group genotype (dd): 60% compared to an average of 16% for the rest of Europe. When a mother is Rh- and she gives birth to Rh+ children, an immune reaction can occur which gives rise to a hemolytic (“blood destroying”) anemia, and often would lead to the death of the child.

The word haplotype is a combination (portmanteau) of the phrase “haploid genotype.” A haplotype is the genetic constitution of an individual chromosome. A genotype is distinct from a haplotype because an individual’s genotype may not uniquely define that individual’s haplotype. The haplotypes in the human genome have been produced by the molecular mechanisms of sexual reproduction and by the history of our species.

We humans are diploid (have a pair of each type of chromosome, so that the basic chromosome number is doubled. Our haplotype will contain one member of the pair of alleles for each site. A haplotype can refer to only one locus or to an entire genome. A genome-wide haplotype would comprise half of a diploid genome, including one allele from each allelic gene pair.

A.E Mourant suggested that modern day Basques have other characteristics, which may mark them as descendants of the late Paleolithic population of Western Europe: They share a skeletal resemblance to Cro-Magnon man and they are the only Western European people who do not speak a Indo-European language.

Unlike knuckle hair, where we could conceive of a single allele being dominant to the other, with Rhesus (Rh) blood groups it’s the relationship of two gene chunks, each composed of three independent alleles. The Rhesus system has more than 40 antigens, is the most complex blood grouping system of them all. The most significant antigen is D, followed by C, E, c, and e antigens. Ronald Fisher, in partnership with Robert Russell Race developed one of the two nomenclatures called the Fisher-Race Theory, used for describing the genetics of the Rhesus blood grouping system, the other being the Rh-Hr Nomenclature of Alexander Weiner.

The difference between the two systems is pretty straightforward: In the Fisher-Race System each gene controls of the product of the corresponding antigen. In other words the D gene produces D antigen, c gene produces c antigen etc. However, the d gene was hypothetical, not actual. We all inherit a set of three Rhesus (Rh) genes from each parent as part of a haplotype.

A haplotype is a chunk of alleles at different places along the same chromosome that are inherited as a unit. Sort of like if you went to a clothing store, bought a blue sweater, and wound up being convinced by a very good salesperson that the sweater would look great with this pair of plaid pants.

To finish the story of the Rhesus blood group, if the maternal genome was Rh haplotype cDe and the paternal genome cde haplotype, the offspring would be Rh positive. Actually any capital letter will make you positive, but a capital D is especially positive, which is why Rh status is often simply a matter of “big D” or “little D.” The Basques are interesting when it comes to Rhesus blood group: 50% are cde/cde, the highest percentage of Rh- blood group in the world.

Thus De Lancre’s observation that Basque women produced only undersized and cursed children who died may have had a ring of truth to it.

The hemochromatosis gene (HFE) has a polymorphic variant (c282y) that is found in very low incidence among the Basques, who instead have the H63 variant. The c282y variant is sometimes called the Celtic polymorphism because it is found in a very large percentage of Celtic people.

It has been speculated that the c282y variant may have been an adaptation to decreased dietary iron in cereal grain-based Neolithic diets. Both homozygous and heterozygous carriers of the HFE c282y mutation have increased iron stores and therefore possessed an adaptive advantage under Neolithic conditions. An allele age estimate places the origin of the c282y mutation in the early Neolithic period in Northern Europe and is thus consistent with this hypothesis. c282y seems to be the result of an effort to “accumulate” the non-heme iron found in plants as a response to the lowered intake of animal products occurring with the conversion of hunter-gathering to neolithic agricultural practices.

The Basques are culturally and geno-graphically unique, thought to be a mesolithic remnant settling in the northern area of Spain before the LCM (Last Glacial Maximum). The high frequency of type O Rh- blood and the low incidence of the c282y polymorphism may indicate that these three genes relate to preferences for heme (animal-derived) iron.

Islands — I don’t get them.
Surrounded by water, poor things.

-Patrizia, in Antonioni’s L’Adventura

From wonder into wonder existence opens.

–Lao Tzu

Portions excerpted from Fundamentals of Generative Medicine copyright 2010, Drum Hill Publishing, USA.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Islands of Humanity”

  1. Andrea says:

    I woke this morning to find this wonderful story of your youth.
    Just last night a young friend and I where discussing RH-. How interesting to find this here today, I will certainly share this with him.

  2. Ginger says:

    what a beautiful post.

  3. Possum says:

    Fascinating!! Thanks

  4. I am interested in learning more about my genetic blood type I am A- and adopted from Conn.raised in N.y.C. I am 56 yrs old now living in Fortuna CA. I have many of the traits that Ive read here,high colesterol.and thyroid issues,also prone to anxiety/depression. I also am a smoker for most of my adult life.I abstain from any alchohol.and dr prescribed lorazapan for anxiety.I need to find a homeopath and wean myself from a Dr who cannot seem to address my issues calling me ‘complex’. I had a life altering emotional upheavel which dropped my weight from 130 lbs to 95 and sometimes less.Is there anything any place to go to recover what up to 6 years ago was a happy,artistic and succesful lifestyle and mental clarity? (Yes I know to stop cigarettes..)anxiety seems to affect my eating habits,I feel full quickly and can hardly eat. Can you recommend someone in my area Im near Eureka and Arcata which has a high percent of naturalpaths.Thank you for any information you can help me with. sincerely.marjie

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