Technically, the 520th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus will be this Friday, the 12th. I want to use the holiday to write about more than just good ol’ Christopher Columbus, specifically I want to address the notion of cultural dynamism versus stagnation, and the ideas of trans-cultural diffusion.
I want very much to repudiate the ignorance of white supremacists – and conservative anti-cultural diversity proponents as well. Because the holiday ties in to the pseudo-science of scientific racism. We didn’t make Columbus Day a formal national holiday until 1937, which was consistent with the rise of some forms of so-called ‘scientific racism’. The Enlightenment era that gave us our Founding Fathers and the notion of ‘natural rights’ also gave us some really really bad ideas about racial and ethnic heritage. The next time someone quotes natural rights to you, I suggest you review the history of scientific racism, to see how some really first class minds got so very much so very, very, very wrong. That ‘wrong’ continued through the 1800s and into the mid 1900s; it produced the Nazi ideas about an ‘Aryan race’ and it produced the modern U.S. right wing notions about race as well that linger into our early decades of the 21st century among the ignorant.
Every time we receive a comment from one of these white supremacists who have been visiting, I’m reminded of just how ignorant they are as a group, how much they embrace pseudo-science without having the education to tell the difference from serious, valid science, and most of all, I’m struck by how little these Anders Breivik wanna-bes actually know about the ‘white European’ culture they claim to be defending from contamination.
So here is a casual history of our ‘contamination’ by other peoples and cultures, and our ‘contamination’ of theirs, a cross-fertilization that has led to our language, our continuing cultural development, even our food. If you eat an apple today, because they are in season in the northern hemisphere — they originated in the same area as the Denisova people I write about below; if you eat a carrot today, those originated not terribly far from the region, in Afghanistan. They were originally black and purple; although they have also been known in yellow, red, and white versions throughout European medieval history. If you are eating the most common orange form – that’s a Dutch development from the 17th century. Originally it was the carrot greens that we ate, and used medicinally; the part we now throw away, not the orange root part. Carrots are now divided, for the avid gardeners and foodies, into eastern and western carrots, but they’re grown worldwide as are apples….which are in the same botanical family as roses, which also came from Asia. In fact the rosacea family includes a lot of our edibles: apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, pears, raspberries, and strawberries, and almonds. If you any of those, or anything flavored with any of those — thank that spirit of exploration and ‘cultural contamination’. And that’s just some of the rosacea family; it gets even more interesting with grains.
I’m sure most of us remember the mnemonic, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
We are not the only country that celebrates this; it is celebrated throughout the so-called ‘new world’, although of course, it is the same age as the rest of the planet. In Canada, it is also celebrated as their Thanksgiving holiday. The holiday has been the pretext for many themes; in 1892, under President Benjamin Harrison, those themes included patriotism as defined by being pro-war, and a subject for both pro and anti-immigrant conflicts over citizenship (echoed in our current national issues).
Notably in the 1800s when there was resistance to increasing numbers of immigrants from countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion. The Knights of Columbus originally formed in part to counter anti-Catholic / anti-immigrant discrimination, with the name selected to remind those who discriminated against immigrants of who it was that had made the discovery of the (sort-of) new-to-Europe continents of North and South America.
Not to take anything away from the accomplishments of Columbus, but there are other claimants to that distinction preceding him. While the examples below indicate the success of sometimes unknown explorers, they tend to focus on individuals or smaller groups; the reality is that as a species, or more precisely the descendants of a group of species, we humans have been wandering this entire planet for thousands of years. We are all related; our cultures are related, our languages are related. If you are reading this in the English in which I wrote it, it is one of the languages that developed from the proto-indo-european origins.
One of my favorite explorers, Thor Heyerdahl, sailed across the Atlantic from Morocco to Barbados, using a boat designed and constructed on an the pattern of ancient Egyptian boats made from papyrus plants and a second similar boat from a type of bulrush. Heyerdahl was a proponent of trans-cultural diffusion, the notion that ancient cultures influentially communicated with each other, both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific. Heyerdahl was one of my childhood heroes, beginning with receiving a very lavishly illustrated book of his Kon Tiki adventures when I was a child. Less famous was his first wife, who made most of the same voyages with him, with the exception of the Kon Tiki expedition. I found it an excellent example that women could be explorers every bit as well as men could.
There is speculation that Chinese explorer Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, may have both been the first explorer that we know of to circumnavigate the globe, he may have discovered both North and South America some 70+ years ahead of Columbus, which further argues for cultural exchange between continents and cultures.
Norse exploration across the Atlantic dates to the late 10th century, and has been well documented.
Then we have the Celtic trans-Atlantic exploration of North America where Tim Severin followed in the earlier footsteps of Heyerdahl, using authentic tools and materials to duplicate sailing vessels of other, earlier periods of history, from ancient to medieval. St. Brendan, in the late 5th century and early 6th century was recorded as having gone both directions across the Atlantic, a trip reproduced by Severin constructing and sailing in 1976-7 from Ireland to New Foundland in a two masted medieval Irish currach.
Whether sailing, across the Pacific or Atlantic, or just walking across primitive Beringia, from Siberia to Alaska, we are a species of explorers who migrate. We are residents of this planet, none of us are inherently or innately entitled to one chunk of it or another more than other groups of people. Our cultures , our technology, our agriculture, our art and music and languages, our religions and political systems, all grow and change in part through our interactions with others who are different, not the same.
One of the somewhat disturbing forms of ignorance that I have encountered blogging here have been the white supremacists who are terribly concerned that white European culture and ‘the white race’ are disappearing from the United States, Canada and Europe.
What a colossal load of bullshit, from people who do not understand language, culture OR race. Our species appears, so far as we know, to have originated in Africa, and from there spread across the globe. The above, both pre and post-Columbian exploration demonstrates how very good we really are at doing that. Race is an artificial construct based on the most superficial characteristics. The predominantly conservative hangups about race, and especially historically, the notions of superiority and inferiority would be funny because of their foolishness, if it were not for the very real harm that resulted from those mistaken ideas – past AND present.
We are far from clear on who or what our species of homo sapiens really IS. There is some indication we may be a variation on hybrids of Neanderthals and Cro-magnon, including a recent skeletal find in Portugal. For those more curious, a brief synopsis of the science of hominid evolution is here.
One of the more fascinating discoveries and genome analyses is of the Denisova hominin bones.
Tourists in front of the Denisova Cave, where “X woman” was found
Denisova hominins (/dɪ̈ˈniːsəvə/), or Denisovans, are Paleolithic-era members of the genus Homo that may belong to a previously unknown species of human. In March 2010, scientists announced the discovery of a finger bone fragment of a juvenile female that lived about 41,000 years ago, found in the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, a cave which has also been inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans. A tooth and toe bone belonging to different members of the same population have since been found.
Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the finger bone showed it to be genetically distinct from the mtDNAs of Neanderthals and modern humans. Subsequent study of the nuclear genome from this specimen suggests this group shares a common origin with Neanderthals, they ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia, and they lived among and interbred with the ancestors of some present-day modern humans, with up to 6% of the DNA of Melanesians and Australian Aborigines deriving from Denisovans. Similar analysis of a toe bone discovered in 2011 is underway.
In 2008, Russian archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of Novosibirsk, working at the site of Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, uncovered a small bone fragment from the fifth finger of a juvenile hominin, dubbed the “X woman” (referring to the maternal descent of mitochondrial DNA,) or the Denisova hominin. Artifacts, including a bracelet, excavated in the cave at the same level were carbon dated to around 40,000 BP.
A team of scientists led by Johannes Krause and Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced mtDNA extracted from the fragment. Because of the cool climate in the location of the Denisova Cave, the discovery benefited from DNA’s ability to survive for longer periods at lower temperatures. The average annual temperature of the cave remains at 0°C, which has contributed to the preservation of archaic DNA among the remains discovered. The analysis indicated that modern humans, Neanderthals, and the Denisova hominin last shared a common ancestor around 1 million years ago.
The mtDNA analysis further suggested this new hominin species was the result of an early migration out of Africa, distinct from the later out-of-Africa migrations associated with Neanderthals and modern humans, but also distinct from the earlier African exodus of Homo erectus. Professor Chris Stringer, human origins researcher at London’s Natural History Museum and one of the leading proponents of the recent single-origin hypothesis, remarked: “This new DNA work provides an entirely new way of looking at the still poorly understood evolution of humans in central and eastern Asia.” Pääbo noted the existence of this distant branch creates a much more complex picture of humankind during the Late Pleistocene.
Later in 2010, a second paper from the Svante Pääbo group reported the prior discovery, in 2000, of a third upper molar from a young adult, dating from about the same time (the finger was from level 11 in the cave sequence, the tooth from level 11.1). The tooth differed in several aspects from those of Neanderthals, while having archaic characteristics similar to the teeth of Homo erectus. They again performed mitochondrial DNA analysis on the tooth and found it to have a different but similar sequence to that of the finger bone, indicating a divergence time about 7,500 years before, and suggesting it belonged to a different individual from the same population.
In 2011, a toe bone was discovered in layer 11 of the cave, and hence was contemporary with the finger bone. Preliminary characterization of the bone’s mitochondrial DNA suggests it belonged to a Neanderthal, not a Denisovan. The Altai cave also contains stone tools and bone artifacts made by modern humans, and Pääbo commented: “The one place where we are sure all three human forms have lived at one time or another is here in Denisova Cave.”
Mitochondrial DNA analysis
The mtDNA from the finger bone differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. This suggested a divergence time around one million years ago. The mtDNA from the tooth bore a high similarity to that of the finger bone, indicating they belonged to the same population.
Nuclear genome analysis
In the same second 2010 paper, the authors reported the isolation and sequencing of nuclear DNA from the Denisova finger bone. This specimen showed an unusual degree of DNA preservation and low level of contamination. They were able to achieve near-complete genomic sequencing, allowing a detailed comparison with Neanderthal and modern humans. From this analysis, they concluded, in spite of the apparent divergence of their mitochondrial sequence, the Denisova population along with Neanderthal shared a common branch from the lineage leading to modern African humans. The estimated average time of divergence between Denisovan and Neanderthal sequences is 640,000 years ago, and the time between both of these and the sequences of modern Africans is 804,000 years ago. They suggest the divergence of the Denisova mtDNA results either from the persistence of a lineage purged from the other branches of humanity through genetic drift or else an introgression from an older hominin lineage.
Interbreeding with modern humans
According to recent genetic studies modern humans may have mated with “at least two groups” of ancient humans: Neanderthals and Denisovans. Genetic study indicates approximately 4% of the DNA of non-African modern humans is the same as that found in Neanderthals, suggesting interbreeding. Tests comparing the Denisova hominin genome with those of six modern humans: a ǃKung from South Africa, a Nigerian, a Frenchman, a Papua New Guinean, a Bougainville Islander and a Han Chinese showed between 4% and 6% of the genome of Melanesians (represented by the Papua New Guinean and Bougainville Islander) derives from a Denisovan population. This DNA was possibly introduced during the early migration to Melanesia.
Melanesians may not be the only modern-day descendants of Denisovans. David Reich of Harvard University, in collaboration with Mark Stoneking of the Planck Institute team, found genetic evidence that Denisovan ancestry is shared by Melanesians, Australian Aborigines, and smaller scattered groups of people in Southeast Asia, such as the Mamanwa, a Negrito people in the Philippines. However, not all Negritos were found to possess Denisovan genes; Andaman Islanders and Malaysian Jehai, for example, were found to have no significant Denisovan inheritance. These data place the interbreeding event in mainland Southeast Asia, and suggests Denisovans once ranged widely over eastern Asia. 
The immune system’s HLA alleles have drawn particular attention in the attempt to identify genes that may derive from archaic human populations. Although not present in the sequenced Denisova genome, the distribution pattern and divergence of HLA-B*73 from other HLA alleles has led to the suggestion that it introgressed from Denisovans into humans in west Asia. Indeed, half of the HLA alleles of modern Eurasians represent archaic HLA haplotypes, and have been inferred to be of Denisovan or Neanderthal origin. The apparent over-representation of these alleles suggests a positive selective pressure for their retention in the human population.
We are still learning who – and what – we are. Whatever you enjoy today is the product of the developmental contributions by all of us, shared between us across planetary distances by those brave enough to be explorers. As John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Celebrating holidays relating to explorers should be about celebrating all the ways we compliment each other and build on each other’s accomplishments. That is true across the planet, and back across time and history. The more isolated any of us are, as individuals or groups, the less we develop that greater combined potential. That is perhaps something that the RNC convention should have remembered better when they claimed to have built things all by themselves, only as individuals. They were wrong. Great advances are made by individuals, but they aren’t made alone. The explorations made by Christopher Columbus was never a solo accomplishment, and we should take the long view of history when contemplating immigration and excluding people from outside this country coming in, or from within this country achieving equality. If you believe there are NOT important things for us to gain from those who are different, as much as there are important things for them to gain from us – think again, think hard, think better, because you’re wrong.