My African maternal ancestor, brought out from the shadows of history

Date

A DNA analysis proves a thrilling adventure for Jane Caro, who finds herself in Africa a long, long time ago.

DNA testing of Jane Caro's maternal ancestry uncovered a big surprise.

DNA testing of Jane Caro's maternal ancestry uncovered a big surprise.

"Your DNA is among the most interesting I have ever seen."

When Professor John Mitchell from La Trobe University said that to me over the phone, I found myself sitting up a little straighter. What on earth could he mean? Was it interesting in a good way (you are from a rare strain of geniuses, perhaps) or in a bad way (you are the latest in a long line of genetic weaklings, deficient in every way)?

Before I reveal all, we can now trace our lineage back to the sub-Saharan African woman who lived 200,000 years ago and is the mother of us all.

Indeed, this ability to unlock our unknown heritage has inspired SBS to make their upcoming program DNA Nation, which is how lucky old me got to have my DNA tested.

Advertisement

It is my mitochondrial DNA that so fascinated Mitchell. This is the DNA that is passed on unchanged from mother to daughter. Sons inherit their mother's mitochondrial DNA too, but they can't pass it on.

Over the 200,000 years since our ancestor passed down her mitochondrial DNA, it has mutated at various points and formed different branches of the human family tree that are called haplogroups. Some of these are very old, some are much more recent.

Many people who look like me are haplogroup H, or Western European. This branch of the DNA tree is relatively new, only 10-15,000 years old.

My father is haplogroup H. His Y chromosome - which is passed on unchanged from father to son - is J1, which evolved in the Middle East.

It is my mother's mitochondria, however, which has got the boffins excited. Her total genome (her complete set of chromosomes rather than just her mitochondria) is 100 per cent European. Her mitochondrial DNA (and thus also mine) is haplogroup L. This combination so surprised the analysts they had to recheck the results just to make sure.

Why the surprise? Well, because haplogroup L is African and is at least 100,000 years old. To put that into perspective, it means that I am a direct descendant of 3000 generations of women who successfully passed their DNA to a daughter, who successfully passed it on to a daughter, and so on for more than 100,000 years. No wonder I am a feminist.

It also means that about 10-20 generations ago (Professor Mitchell explained that it takes this long for what he calls the "dilution" to happen, and it's some dilution; I mean, just look at that photo of me) - an African woman met a European man and had a daughter who met a European man, and so on. As a generation is about 30 years, this event happened 300-500 years ago.

I immediately thought of slavery - but who knows? And when I say my European and African ancestors "met", I can't help wondering if it was a pleasant meeting or a terrible one.

We also have no idea when the secret of our heritage was lost. My great-great-granny liked to boast that she was descended from Catherine Menzies, the daughter of the Laird of the Menzies clan. I wonder how that snooty old Scotswoman (so she thought) would have reacted if she'd known our maternal line is actually African?

DNA Nation is a three-part series that will follow Ian Thorpe, Ernie Dingo and Julia Zemiro as they uncover the secrets of their DNA, and I hope their genetic adventures prove to be as thrilling as mine has been. The series will also present a genetic census of Australia to give us a picture of where we have all come from.

Now that I know my maternal history, I am awestruck at the thought of all those women passing on their DNA for 100,000 years. I have a vision of one of them, a long-forgotten black woman, maybe a slave, lying in an unknown grave somewhere (the West Indies? The Americas? The bottom of the ocean?) stirring with pleasure at the thought her existence is once again known. •

DNA Nation starts on Sunday night at 8.30pm on SBS.