Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

The Ancestors' Ancestors

story by Michael Shapiro
photo by Sergio Goes


Walter Kawai‘ae‘a Jr. knows where he’s from. His sixth great-grandmother, ‘Owaukekamaka-opi‘opi‘o, had been hanaied (adopted) into King Kamehameha the Great’s family because her own grandmother had nursed the King. When she died in 1924 at the age of 101, the Honolulu Advertiser printed the oli (chant) recording her lineage. Walter brought those pages to Hawaiian language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui for translation. Turns out Walter can trace his ancestry as far back as any Hawaiian can—directly to Hawai‘iloa, reputedly the first Polynesian to step off the canoe on the shores of Hawai‘i in the fifth century AD.

Now, thanks to a simple cheek swab, Walter can go back even further—all the way to “Mitochondrial Eve,” the ancestral mother of every modern human, who lived in Africa roughly 150,000 years ago. “We’re all effectively cousins, separated by no more than 2,000 generations,” says Dr. Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project, a collaborative effort by the National Geographic Society and IBM to collect 100,000 DNA samples from the world’s indigenous people. Because markers of genetic mutations are preserved through generations, paleoanthropologists can track where and when different races originated and where they went. By examining their DNA before they, too, are absorbed into global society, it is possible to take a “genetic snapshot” of human history.

Walter belongs to “haplogroup B.” They migrated north through the Sahara around 50,000 years ago, when climate change made the desert fertile enough—briefly—to permit travel through it. An enterprising lot, haplogroup B’s ancestors were the first humans to leave Africa before this “Saharan Gateway” snapped shut. They remained in the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, probably coexisting with Neanderthals, before following migrating herds of game across central Asia. Somewhere near Lake Baikal, in what’s now Russia, this haplogroup split; one branch headed north across the Bering land bridge to become Native Americans. The other went southeast to become Chinese, Southeast Asians and Australian aborigines. One of the most recent migrations in human history occurred practically yesterday—5,000 years ago—when
a few daring seafarers left southeast Asia and sailed into the east, eventually to become Polynesians, and later, Hawaiians.

You don’t have to be an indigenous person to participate. For a little over $100, you can order a testing kit and see how you relate to the human family. The proceeds will support the Genographic Project’s ongoing DNA collection.

For Walter Kawai‘ae‘a Jr., the results aren’t any big surprise. “I always knew where my ancestors came from,” he says, “But these are the ancestors of my ancestors, of the Polynesians. It’s amazing to see it.”