Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kokernot DNA analysis

I wrote two different introductions to a discussion of a DNA analysis of David Kokernot descendants. Here is the one I discarded:

Two Kokernot males, a continent apart. Each scraped the inside of his mouth with a piece of cardboard and placed it into a glass tube labeled with his personal serial number. Each performed the ritual a second time, for a backup, and placed the tubes into a package already stamped and addressed to a DNA testing laboratory in Houston. The laboratory responded two months later with a string of thirty-seven numbers for each—holding, perhaps, the solution to a mystery.

Part of David Kokernot’s story reveals itself to anyone carefully searching in documents and accounts of his time. His life was, of course, shaped partly by his childhood circumstances and by the customs and values passed to him by his ancestors. Those customs and values become more difficult to discover the further back in time the biographer searches. Written records reveal the exact location of David’s childhood home in Amsterdam, provide the names of his parents and grandparents, and even hint at their occupations, but beyond that the view is murky. We know the family were Ashkenazi Jews and, therefore, relative newcomers to Amsterdam. But were they Europeans converted to Judaism, or part of the great Diaspora from the Middle East? Had they arrived in Amsterdam from England, or perhaps France or Eastern Europe? Written records say nothing, and there lies the mystery.

DNA analysis, like a time machine, may hold the answer. Spencer Wells calls DNA the “personal history book [carried] around inside us.” If so, its language is not plain English and those thirty-seven numbers represent only a short paragraph or two of a long book indeed. Nevertheless, scientists are decoding the book. DNA analysis of David Kokernot's descendants illuminates two periods in the murky past, the first about four to five hundred years ago, and the second about ten to twenty thousand years ago. Ten or twenty millennia ago certainly represents a beginning, so that is where this story begins.