On a Genome Project

The study of genetics and the promise of genome science hold out the hope for a future of increased health and quality of life for many. In the meantime, the science has been used for more mundane yet still fascinating purposes. Genealogists have been accessing genetic information for years now, connecting people to ancestors they never knew they had. One such attempt at tracing ancestry in Iceland recently has been interesting and revealing.

The project involves a man named Hans Jonatan, a man of Danish descent who immigrated to Iceland in 1802. I use the term “immigrated” loosely, because Hans apparently hid himself on a ship that left Copenhagen and entered Iceland secretly. He left Denmark after having fought in the Danish Navy, a service in which he distinguished himself. It seems that the prospect of him being sent to the West Indies prompted Hans to make his escape to Iceland. He got a job at a trading post in a village there, and ended up having a wife and a large family. All in all, a good if difficult life.

Fast forward to 2018. Genetic specialists wanted to recreate Hans Jonatan’s genome by only using his descendants’ genetic samples and not using any of the man’s own physical, genetic material. That had never been attempted before. Luckily, Hans Jonatan’s family in Iceland has grown significantly in the past 200 years. Taking samples from several of those family members, scientists were able to reconstruct almost 40% of Jonatan’s mother’s DNA and almost 20% of his.

You might be wondering how this was possible. How could the genetic makeup of someone be recreated simply by, in a way, reverse engineering the man’s DNA? Well, first of all, the fact that Iceland is a remote island nation certainly helps. The place is perfectly set up to isolate a person’s genetic history. And then there’s the other, even more important marker, especially concerning Hans Jonatan’s mother.

You see, while Jonatan’s father was Danish, his mother certainly was not. She was a slave from Africa, brought to the Danish colony of St. Croix, where she met Jonatan’s father. The genome project found that she was from West African tribes. That fact is also why it was so much easier to identify the DNA markers in the attempt to re-create Hans Jonatan’s genes. And the fact that his mother was a slave is why why Hans was being sent back to the West Indies after his naval service.

And, it’s why he escaped to Iceland. Yes, by stowing away and making it to Iceland, he became the first black man to ever live there. And now, over 900 of his direct descendants live there, too.


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