One of my many interests in life is the field of genealogy. I’ve been delving into the woodpiles of my family story for over three decades now and I’m still just as excited about the journey as I was when I first began. I find it incredibly fascinating that modern technology has given us the tools to collate vast amounts of historical and ancestral data that we’re now able to trace our direct ancestors back hundreds or even thousands of years with relative ease. On top of all that and with the addition of DNA analysis, we can find distant cousins in obscure places across the globe, then assemble individual family records to sort of reverse engineer our family trees.
My favorite of all our vacations has thus far been our trip to Wales. During that trip, we were fortunate on one day to have our lunch in a 16th century pub named the “Old Swan Inn” in a tiny southern Welsh village called Llantwit Major. The significance; that pub once was the ancestral home of my 12th Great Grandfather Sir Robert Ragland (b. 1510 d. 1565). Just the ability to know that is super cool; visiting and dining there among the broken plaster walls, hand-hewn beams and squeaky wooden floors that my distant ancestors also experienced cannot be described.
There were, of course, lots of other interesting and genealogically important places we visited on that trip, but I don’t want to bore you with the history of my maternal ancestry. I just wanted to share the one part of it that I think supports the overall gist of this story and get you thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead of you should you begin pursuing your own family story.
Not all the things I think about in my quiet moments are appropriate for every audience but there are a few thoughts I often have that I don’t mind sharing. One is this idea of how incredibly miraculous it is that any of us are actually here today. When you really sit back and delve into the odds, its unfathomable that we could be here by mistake. When I talk of odds, I mean the obstacles our forefathers and mothers endured to be able to pass on their DNA to us. You and I are the children of the sturdiest, smartest, luckiest, healthiest, strongest, fastest, surefooted’est group of men and women ever born. If they weren’t all these things, we surely would not be here today.
I guess, what brought about all these ideas is my insatiable appetite for history. I love to read. Lately, I’ve gotten interested in the history and evolution of Celtic and proto-Celtic peoples as they spread themselves through early Belgium (Gaul) and Germany (Germania), through the beginnings of a country we now call France (Frankia), then onto the island of Britain (Britannia) and across and up into Wales (Cambria), Scotland (Alba) and Ireland (Hibernia). That is, of course, not the only way humans made it to the islands and areas well-known today for their Celtic inhabitants; just their most prolific path.
This journey, as is the case for every tribe of humanity, was and is affected by a plethora of circumstances and decisions that shaped the future of these people. Some of which they had no control over and some of which they did. Either way, hundreds of millions of people gave their lives along the way, learning and evolving and becoming more disease resistant then passing down that new knowledge and those priceless immunities to their children and grandchildren.
That seams easy to say and read doesn’t it…hundreds of millions of people. Unfortunately, it does even for me. If I were not the author of this story, I might myself roll my eyes at someone talking about hundreds of millions of people. But, when I’m done here, I hope that you think twice or three times about the scope of what it really means to you and me.
Just think for a minute about the many things our humanity has survived: famines, plagues, natural disasters, religious inquisitions, and wars. Let’s look at plagues for a second.
Plagues: When you add the deaths brought on by Malaria, the Black Death, Measles, Smallpox, the Spanish Flu, the Plague of Justinian, Tuberculosis, the Bubonic Plague, the Antonine Plague and AIDS, you’re talking about nearly 7 Billion deaths. That’s close to the current (2019) population of the entire planet and about 22 times the population of the United States. There were literally villages in the middle ages that were completely wiped out by plagues. The bloodlines of entire families were wiped out in some cases.
If your family happened to have been one of the victims of any of those plagues, you literally would not be here today. There would have been about a 50/50 chance that you wouldn’t. But your family was made of good stuff…the best stuff; so here you are today playing video games and getting your news from blogs, all so very thankful and mindful of the sacrifices made before you that allow you to simultaneously hold the high score in Donkey Kong AND Super Mario Odyssey for 2 years straight.
But seriously, what would our planet look like today had all those deaths not occurred? The human experience is complex. From massive amounts of death and destruction have arisen new antibodies and disease resistance that helped to carry our ancestors, the ones with the strongest immune systems of their day, on to reproduce and evolve further.
War: If we examine the aftermath of war, which by the way is incalculable, and break it down from Ancient Wars (549 BC to 450 AD), Medieval Wars (534 AD to 1487 AD) and Modern Wars (1494 AD to 2018), it is a scary picture indeed. Ancient Wars took about 60,000,000 people from us. That is not including the spouses and children who died from starvation as a result of the death of their soldier husband/father or the death of civilians when villages were pillaged. Medieval Wars took another 90,000,000 people. Modern Wars, however, have taken more than 465,000,000 people out of our gene pool.
By combining just the known casualties of recorded war acts, the numbers are staggering – more than 600 million people. But the reality is that there has always been war, much of it unrecorded. Entire peoples, languages and cultures have been eliminated by war.
Religion: Religious persecutions, insurrections and inquisitions have been quite the DNA altering influences as well. More than 10,000,000 documented people have been intentionally and quite gruesomely murdered at the hands of various religious sects, orders, church’s, etc., in the absolute belief that God instructed them to do it.
It’s amazing to me that even an evolved and otherwise healthy human mind can be influenced to believe and to justify the complete intolerance of another’s beliefs and ideals. We see militant religious intolerance to this very day from every nook, cranny and political sphere known. There are some human conditions for which no cure could ever be invented – because perhaps we don’t want them.
Famine: Famine is not something to sneeze at in our world history either. Just in China alone, widespread famines have taken the lives of over 80,000,000 Chinese family descendants. Russia too has a long and painful history of famines; the cumulative effect of which numbers close to 21,000,000 people.
Just think for a minute what it would have been like to live in either China or Russia during any of the dozens of separate national famines of those era’s. I remember news reports from my teens showing thousands of Russians standing in bread lines to get rationed food. These are not just historical era problems from a more barbaric past. Famines are current events.
When the widespread push of Communism was spreading through Western Europe after WWII, the U.S. and its Allies were just as concerned about famine and hunger as they were about totalitarianism. People were dying by the millions. The U.S. alone spend more than 13 Billions dollars on foreign aid to western Europe from 1948 to 1951 in order to save lives.
Ethnic Indians too have lost nearly 60,000,000 people to famine over their recorded history and Africa has lost 20,000,000 just in the 20th century alone. When you look at famine deaths worldwide, it’s not difficult to figure out that we’re pretty darn lucky that our particular ancestors were somehow able to survive to leave us this healthier legacy – the importance of which we may or may not have figured out for ourselves.
Natural Disaster: Along with all the other drama and dysfunction happening before we existed, our poor forefathers also dealt with other issues you may not have thought about. Our planet has endured 5 separate ice ages, thousands of earthquakes, volcano eruptions, banana peel falls, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, asteroid collisions, pterodactyl attacks, mud slides and who knows what all else. I have no way of calculating the total deaths and migrations associated with the ice ages and it would be impossible to account for the historic numbers of people affected by the other events I mentioned.
I think though it would be more than fair to assume that millions and millions of our ancestors have been eliminated from our genetic heritage as a result of natural disasters. If you’ve ever been fortunate to visit the ancient city of Pompeii on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, you’ve probably met what’s left of some of these unfortunate ancestors in person.
So, for those of you who’ve not been keeping up with the score, we’ve passed the current worldwide population (7 Billion) by over 8 hundred million people. This unfortunate fraternity of humanity, I’ll call the Friends Without Benefits Club, are an anomaly for sure. Many of them never had the chance to pass on their DNA, but we know they made enormous contributions to our survival that will never be fully appreciated as we mostly have no names, books, statues or poems from which to memorialize them.
These were not just heroes of their villages and cultures who sacrificed themselves as soldiers in order to keep their family’s DNA safe, they were also the guinea pigs of early humanity who donated their existence to a science that was not yet knowable.
When you are at your lowest moments and you question why you are here or whether anyone would care if your gone, think about all the good karma that saw to it your existence was even possible. Even my dog has a reason to be here. None of us are accidental. None of us are incidental.
And when you begin to feel the pains of intolerance to anyone for anything. Step back a second and remember how radical intolerance begins. It begins with justified intolerance. Sometimes a justified intolerance for people who have intolerance toward you and your ideals. Try instead to cultivate the grace within you and recognize that everything in this world has its own time, but time is temporary. Be patient and it will change.