IdeaFestival: ‘History of Us’ shapes our attitudes, identities and DNA

Christine Kenneally is a journalist and author of the "Invisible History of the Human Race." | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Christine Kenneally is a journalist and author of the “Invisible History of the Human Race.” | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

When journalist Christine Kenneally was a young girl growing up in Australia, her teacher, like many elementary school teachers around the world, asked the class to create a family tree.

She returned home and asked her parents the questions about her family history that the teacher had given the class. Her parents, Kenneally said, were indignant and evaded questioning that went too far into the family past. It was only in her 20s that she found out that the woman she thought of as an aunt, as her father’s sister, was actually her father’s mother, and Kenneally’s dad never knew his father.

“How do (relatives) shape our lives today even though they haven’t been around and haven’t been around for a long time,” she said.

Kenneally began digging into that question and later wrote a book titled “Invisible History of the Human Race.” At IdeaFestival Friday, she talked about how our ancestors’ experiences can affect people many generations later.

One of the greatest impacts on a person is slavery. Many African-Americans can only trace their families back a few generations because to their ancestors were sold into slavery and brought to America or other foreign nations. Some can trace their heritage through genetic testing and rigorous research, but slaves were treated as cattle, not humans with names. Those people also adopted new names or were forced to take on new names, making it harder to connect the dots.

“We have a huge population of Americans today who can’t trace their ancestry,” she said. “That is a huge gap for all of those people.”

In Benin, the slave trade centuries ago still has real effects on today’s society, Kenneally said, citing research. In regions where more slaves were taken, trust of other people is lower because neighbors would sell each other out hundreds of years ago in order to save their own families. Children today pick on each other by talking about selling the other person into slavery.

“All of this is showing us just how real the weight of history is,” she said.

History can influence the present on a smaller scale as well. Women whose female ancestors had many children are prone to have more children than average, Kenneally said.

Our family history — the history that is told and the history that is hidden — has a lasting impact on people, she said. “Our families are these profound crucibles.”

Another factor to knowing who we are as a people in the broader sense and as a person in the singular sense is DNA, the sequencing of which has allowed people in the recent decades to learn about their past using science. The human genome can tell people where their ancestors are from and what percentage European, Asian and African they are.

Just this decade, scientists also found evidence of archaic Neanderthal DNA in the DNA of a Homo sapien. Previously, Kenneally said, some people believed that Homo sapiens did not interbred with Neanderthals, a more primitive species.

“Inside each of us is an incredibly complicated book, and it contains trace elements of history,” she said. “I hope I have convinced you today to dig into that human history and find out what you can.”