Sunday, January 9, 2011

Exploring human evolution and migration through DNA is genealogy writ large

I read a lot of nonfiction related in one way or another to genealogy and my personal family research.  And I watch just about anything on television that connects to genealogy or my ancestral roots.  Over the years, though, one book and one TV documentary have impacted me more than all the rest combined: The Seven Daughters of Eve by geneticist Bryan Sykes (2001) and  Journey of Man, featuring geneticist Spencer Wells (PBS/National Geographic, 2003).  Sykes and Wells are leading world authorities on DNA research.

The Seven Daughters of Eve focuses on mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, which is passed down matrilineally—from a woman to her daughter, to her daughter, to her daughter, generation after generation.  Journey of Man traces Y-DNA, which is similarly passed down, patrilineally, from a man to his son, to his son, to his son, and so on.  Both of these ground-breaking works look at the big picture: the evolution of the human species over thousands of years, through migration out of Africa and across the planet.  Genealogy writ large.

I am not going to go into detail here about the substance of either Seven Daughters or Journey.  Much has been written about both of them.  When I Googled the titles earlier today, I noticed, for instance, that Journey of Man is available for viewing (in 13 segments) on YouTube.

There is a plethora of material available now about DNA research and its significance for genealogy.  I've read a number of the popular books, and I've attended numerous workshops on this topic.  I am not by nature scientifically inclined, so much of the material seems dry and does little to increase my understanding.  The Seven Daughters of Eve and Journey of Man, though, captivated me.

There is a mythic quality about The Seven Daughters of Eve that engages me.  Sykes's research (later expanded upon) led him to conclude that people of native European descent trace their ancestry back to one or another of seven women whose mtDNA mutated from their mother's.  These seven mutations occurred thousands of years apart, between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago.  Each was a turning point that created a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA. 

Sykes envisions these seven women as "clan mothers."  He christens them each with names—Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, and Jasmine—and describes their probable lives and times in their respective regions of Europe and the Middle East.  This is science as Susan Seddon Boulet might have painted it.  I can imagine the Seven Daughters' stories being told during ceremonies deep in the caves of Lascaux with flute music echoing from yet-deeper caverns.  But that's just me and, as I have to emphasize, I'm no scientist.

If The Seven Daughters of Eve takes you into the dreamtime, Journey of Man lurches you onto the frozen tundra with a backpack of test kits.  Spencer Wells is a high-energy genius who seems like he'd be equally comfortable analyzing lab results or summiting K2.  A book was developed from this documentary, but this story is such an amazing adventure, and certainly so visual, that this just might be one of those rare times when the film trumps the book. 

"Blood was the time machine, and we were the time travelers," Wells says as he explains the research that took him visiting isolated tribes and populations all over the planet to trace the Y chromosome and explore how everyone—everyone—is related.  One of my favorite scenes is in Kazakhstan, which you can see in Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (Part 9 of 13) on YouTube.  This documentary rocks.

Bryan Sykes and Spencer Wells, more than anyone else, brought DNA and genetics to life for me.  Their work made traditional paper-trail genealogy seem like a very tiny, limited view of the real story—the really great story of human evolution and migration.  They linked my passion for genealogy with my lifelong interest in anthropology.  They opened doors that beckoned me inside, ready to swab my mouth for saliva (thankfully, no blood samples required!) and learn how my ancestors and I fit into this amazing journey of man and woman across Planet Earth.  And what I've learned from my family's DNA tests intrigues me even more.  It's our own journey, evolution and migration writ small.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The incredible good karma of genealogy Listservs

It's easy to take Listservs for granted in genealogy.  There are countless numbers of them online, devoted to every conceivable aspect of family history research.  They are free (and conventional wisdom says people value services more when they have to pay for them).  They are effortless, for members content to do no more than open e-mail, read, and lurk.  (In contrast, they can be very labor-intensive for the dedicated souls, unsung heroes one and all, who organize and moderate them.)

I don't take lists for granted.  When I reflect on some of the major successes I've enjoyed in genealogy over the past 15 years, it is clear that they have been due largely to the invaluable help I received from the early genealogy forums and user groups (once sponsored by AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc.) and from Listservs.

Very best example:  My father's family lost contact with some cousins in Belarus after my paternal grandmother, Anna, died in 1976.  In 1998, a young woman named Ilona (either from the Belarus Discussion list connected to A Belarus Miscellany online, or from the soc.culture.belarus group, I can't recall; all our correspondence was via AOL) found those cousins for me within five months.  I e-mailed her JPGs of some photos dating back to the 1950s-60s.  She e-mailed them to her father, who was a physician in Radun, Belarus.  He showed them to everyone he came in contact with.  Within a couple weeks, someone recognized my cousin Maria from a 1965 photo.  Ilona's father drove to Maria's village to meet her and relate this story.  He e-mailed Ilona Maria's address; Ilona e-mailed it to me.  When I traveled to Belarus in 2001, I finally met Maria and her family.  Extraordinary!  Could I have done this on my own?  Maybe ... but it seems unlikely.

Just recently, a member of one of my favorite lists e-mailed me some JPGs of church records that had caught his eye while he was doing his own family research.  He thought they might interest me, since they involved two Prokopowicz families from our mutual ancestral area.  Among them was the 1845 baptismal record of my maternal great-grandfather, Kazimierz Prokopowicz!  How many years had I been looking for that?  Oh, only about 15.  I simply hadn't hit on the correct year in my search.  Kazimierz had been my missing link.  Seeing his father's name on the baptismal record allowed me to take that family line back three more generations.

The incredible good karma of Listservs

In between Ilona in 1998 and Marek in 2010, dozens of fellow list members have helped me in more ways than I can detail here.  They have been from all over North America, Europe, and Australia.  We have communicated in English, Polish, and Russian (just a few feeble attempts on my part).  They have explained and translated arcane 18th-19th-century Polish and Russian terminology, offered insight into history and culture, and shared PDFs of documents and URLs of Web sites.  Always generously, always graciously.  Honestly, I have always tried to be equally helpful on my lists, whenever I've felt I had something worthwhile to offer.  Good karma is a two-way street. 

Since 1996, I've subscribed to many genealogical Listservs—some Polish (my ethnic heritage), some Belarusian (my ancestral region has been within the boundaries of western Belarus since 1945), some Lithuanian (my paternal family villages and parishes straddle today's border of Belarus and Lithuania), some Russian (my ancestral region was within the boundaries of the Russian Empire for 125 years).  Because my immigrant grandparents settled in Massachusetts, I've joined lists focused on that U.S. state and the New England region.  About three years ago, I started a Yahoo! group called PolishMass, specifically focused on Polish Roman Catholic immigration to Massachusetts.  I've also joined lists sponsored by various genealogical societies and organizations and lists dedicated to specific topics, like Russian military history.  (Seriously.  It took me many years to get a satisfying explanation of the military status indicated by zabiletny soldat.) 

Every one of those Listservs has been worthwhile.  I subscribe to them in digest form.  This means that for each Listserv, I receive only one e-mail a day, and it contains all the messages posted in the past 24 hours or so.  Each day, a dozen or so lists appear in my inbox, and I read them with my morning coffee.  Some I skim and delete quickly, some I spend considerable time with, depending on the topics.

Below are my four favorite Listservs.  I have not identified any members by name, simply in respect for their privacy, as much as I'd like to give shout-outs to some of the most knowledgeable and helpful.  The founders and moderators, whether named here or not, are all my heroes for providing such wonderful forums for thousands of family researchers.  And among the thousands of list members, I'm happy to have made some genuinely great friends.


 If I could give a giant gold star, or some impressive trophy, or better yet, a great big hug, to my all-time favorite Listserv, it would be to LidaRoots.  The icons and flags on the home page for this Yahoo! group represent  the ethnic and religious diversity that make this area of western Belarus so culturally rich.  Unlike lists geared to specific narrow groups (my own PolishMass among them), LidaRoots opens its heart and mind to everyone with ancestry in this area or an interest in its history. 

Founded by Tony Gabis in May 2002, this list currently has 223 members.  At least a dozen of the more active participants are top-notch researchers, and the quality of discussion is the deepest, most substantial I've ever experienced on a list.  Listservs don't get any better than this.  And newbies are always welcome :)


This list has garnered more than a thousand members since it was founded by Stefan Wisniowski in 2001.  I can't improve upon the compelling description on its home page:   "The 'Kresy-Siberia Group' brings into contact people from countries around the world with a special interest in the fate of over one million Polish citizens of various faiths and ethnicities (Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, etc.) arrested or deported from eastern Poland (Kresy) to special labour camps in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Soviet Asia. The circumstances of their odyssey and the tragic history of the Polish citizens under Soviet occupation during WW2 was hushed up by the Allies during the war to protect the reputation of the Soviet Union, an important ally fighting the Nazis. 

"Sixty years later the survivors have aged and many have died. With this list we hope to bring together surviving deportees and their descendants to remember, learn, discover and spread the word of their ordeal to the world and to future generations."

What is truly outstanding about this list is that it has taken its energy and resources a step further to become an increasingly significant cultural force by means of the Kresy Siberia Virtual Museum:

This list has helped me to understand the experiences of my family in Poland's eastern borderlands, the kresy, during and after World War II.  And it has helped me to find detailed information about some of them and their own odysseys.  I receive much more than I can possibly give here, and I am grateful beyond measure.

Lithuanian Genealogy

Founded in 1999 and sponsored by the Lithuanian Global Genealogical Society, this list has 2,277 members.  Like LidaRoots and Kresy-Siberia, this is a dynamic, helpful group of people with some highly skilled members here and abroad.  It has taught me much about the Lithuanian aspect of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and all its geographic and political morphing over the centuries.  As I trace my paternal roots increasingly northward from Belarus into Lithuania, I expect my interest here to grow even stronger.


More than 2,200 members have joined this group since it was created in 2005.  I think that speaks to the ever-increasing interest in DNA research for genealogy.  The list is sponsored by the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG).  The moderators are extremely knowledgeable and unceasingly helpful to people like me, who are, frankly, just trying to understand the results of the DNA tests we order to complement our paper-trail genealogical research. 

I am not a sciencey person.  My high school Algebra II teacher, Sister Mary Celine, made me promise not to major in math in college.  No matter how many books I read or workshops I attend, very, very little of all those strings of numbers and ACGT letters on the test results mean anything to me.  I am a DNA newbie.  I am lucky someone started this list.

Getting acquainted with twenty new ancestral lines

My blog could probably use a new subtitle.  "Reseaching the genealogy of the Prokopowicz, Ruśćik, and Blaszko Families" doesn't tell the whole story anymore.  Those three surnames identify all four of my grandparents: paternally, Julian Prokopowicz and Anna Blaszko, and maternally, Aleksandr Prokopowicz and Stefania Ruśćik.  When I started this blog, that seemed sufficient.  Including my great-grandparents' surnames would have been unwieldy.  But now I'd like to introduce the earlier generations.

I'll never be one of those genealogists who, like birders with their life lists, proudly announce they have 37,482 names in their database.  Nor do I care about having 945 friends on Facebook or 682 followers of this blog.  Frankly, I'm surprised (and honored) that Basia's Polish Family has, at last count, 13 followers.  That's a cozy group, small enough to get together for coffee and conversation about Polish genealogy! 

In general, I enjoy getting to know people one at a time, more than in groups.  One-on-one, there is the opportunity for focus, revelation, truth telling, being real, without interruption or distraction.  I feel the same way about meeting my ancestors.  When I discover someone new in my research, I want time alone with that person, time to savor our shared name, say it aloud, and claim it.  I like to imagine what that person looked like, what their personality was like. 

Most often I find new names in the course of reading microfilmed records; sometimes, of course, they appear in documents I receive in the mail or find in databases online.  These days, I am doing several hours of research each week at a small Family History Center close to my workplace.  It is housed at Godfrey Memorial Library, a gem of a genealogical library in Middletown, Connecticut.  When an early-18th-century church record offers up a new name, be it a direct ancestor or someone otherwise related, I can't help but share the good news with the one or two other people in the room.  "Oh, wow! I just found ____ !!!"  Then I print the record.  (There is no scanning equipment at this FHC, and I'd just as soon print as capture the image with my digital camera.) 

Celebration and reflection

When I leave, that new name is mine to mull during the 20-minute drive home.  If it's a really important person—a brand new great-great-great-grandparent, say—I stop at Dunkin' Donuts for coffee and a bagel, which I enjoy in my car in the parking lot.  Always in my car, so I can pull the newly printed record out of my tote bag and set it on the front passenger seat alongside a worn, taped working copy of my family tree.  This is my little ceremony for getting acquainted with my new ancestor, our own private one-on-one bonding time.

I think about when and where they lived, both locally and in the historic big picture ... their place within that branch of that particular family line ... what I might know already (from other records) of their life experiences, joys and sorrows.  I wonder what they looked like, and what traces of them might have made it through the generations to find new life in me.  DNA testing makes me even more acutely aware of all the different family lines I embody. 

My Lida ancestors

From at least the 1700s, and most likely earlier, all these families lived in the Lida area between Grodno and Wilno.  Some were clearly associated with specific villages over the course of several generations; others moved from one village to another, for reasons I don't yet understand.  After thinking of myself as a Prokopowicz for all my life, it intrigues me to consider that I am also the following:

Through the ancestry of Julian Prokopowicz, a Bogdan, Janonis, Wieligor, and Kadysz / Chadysz.  (Roman Catholic parishes of Ejszyszki, Bieniakonie, Werenów, and Ossów)

Through the ancestry of Anna Blaszko, a Bowszys, Doda, Tumielewicz,  Balcewicz, and Rudz.  (Roman Catholic parishes of Radun, Ossów, Lida, and possibly Żyrmuny)

Through the ancestry of Aleksandr Prokopowicz, a Zubrzycki, Haydukiewicz, Piwowarczyk, Dubiejko,  Chwiedziuk, and Kaczanowna. (Roman Catholic parishes of Iszczolna, Wasiliszki, Szczuczyn, and possibly Różanka)

Through the ancestry of Stefania Ruśćik aka Ruść, a Nowogrodzka, Hayduk, Sobol, Staniejko, and  Mickiewicz.  (Roman Catholic parishes of Szczuczyn, Wasiliszki, and Lack)

These surnames generally represent ancestors in my great- and great-great-grandparents' generations.  My immediate goal is to identify all 16 great-great-grandparents.  In a couple lines, I've not yet found the women's family surnames.  In the case of my paternal great-grandmother Anna Bogdan, this surname and its variations are rather common; until I find some record identifying her family's village and parish, I cannot reliably trace her line further.