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We are all Africans

By Nayan Chanda - posted Thursday, 30 July 2009


Sweden’s well-known author Lasse Berg often begins his book talk with an attention-getter: “I am glad to see so many Africans in the room”. It invariably makes his (largely blond and Nordic) audience turn around to see where all the Africans are. Of course, Berg means everyone present. The author of Dawn over Kalahari: How Man Became Man proceeds to tell the story of how all humanity emerged out of the so-called dark continent and populated the earth.

I think of Berg’s message when I read about an African student in Delhi being harassed by catcalls referring to his dark skin - kalia, kaala, habshi - or for that matter Indians from the North-east being derided as “chinki” for their Chinese look. This is not different from the discrimination faced by Indian students in Australia who have recently been victims of “curry bashing”. Such racist insults seem to be increasing, or perhaps becoming more visible as the world becomes more integrated than ever. The gap between our knowledge of who we are and how we treat each other is as vast as it is stark.

Often these racial incidents are dismissed by the elite as acts of hoodlums or narrow-minded individuals. Surely, we all know humanity is one. Even leaving philosophical magnanimity or liberalism to one side, there is the simple biological fact that in every cell of our body we carry evidence of our common African origins. The startling 1987 discovery of our common origin by Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann by studying mtDNA (the maternal DNA) from samples dispersed all over the world led Newsweek to run a cover story with an image of an African Adam and Eve. In the ensuing years, massive amounts of genetic research has laid to rest any doubt about our African origin. While all non-African females are descendants of L3 line from Africa, our earliest common father was one with a Y chromosome marker, M-168.

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Curious about my own forebears, I sent my DNA anonymously for testing. The results were startling. The report told me I was an Indian because I had M-52 marker, which is predominantly Indian. But the report also confirmed the earliest Y-chromosome in my DNA was the same M-168 - that every male on the planet carries in his cells. My ancestors reached India some 2,000 generations ago.

The scientific evidence that we share the same African ancestry has been around for over two decades. Yet, in speaking about this to audiences across four continents, while presenting my book Bound Together I have encountered great surprise, and some scepticism. For whatever reason, this dramatic scientific confirmation of our common origin appears not to have penetrated the consciousness of even the most well-educated.

Will wider dissemination of the scientific facts make any difference to the racist sentiment? Perhaps not in the short term. But that should be more the reason to start with our children, and make our genetic history an essential part of school curriculum.

Wide diffusion of the fact that 99.9 per cent of all human DNA is the same and pigmentation and other physical attributes are literally skin-deep may, over time, make us more accepting of others who look different. The understanding that our multi-hued skin, shape of our eyes and forms of our body were sculpted by a millennia of climatic conditions and natural selection might also make us less tolerant of the hoodlums and ignoramuses who indulge in racial discrimination.

Teachers might start by downloading an accessible article from the July 2008 issue of Scientific American, so that they can share with students the story of our African journey. They might even encourage volunteers to send their DNA for testing deep ancestry through National Genographic project (genographic.nationalgeographic.com), and share the results with the whole school.

Knowledge has not prevented racism and other malignancies that infect us, but we cannot hope to eliminate the scourge without it. Just five years ago, most people had no knowledge, let alone concern about global warming. But accumulated scientific evidence and its diffusion on a wider scale has produced greater awareness. The fact is that globalisation has increased our interdependence and exposure to others. To reduce the friction that results from the close encounter with other members of human tribe, we need to internalise what Berg tells his audience: we are all blacks.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2009, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.



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About the Author

Nayan Chanda is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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