Gene Historians

People often fail to trace their own genealogical tree beyond grandmas and grandpas; archives can’t beat the 200-year limit and are often at a loss at the end of the 19th century, as documents that can shed light on what happened in the past are very scarce.Only anthropologists and geneticists can help us breach the centuries-old dungeons of history
In the West there are many theories of the descent of man. Minsk scientists decided to follow suit and find out what the ancestors of the Belarusians looked like. This is a great challenge for two Belarusian institutes — the Institute of Art History, Ethnography and Folklore of the National Academy of Sciences (senior researcher with the anthropology and ethnology department Alexei Mikulich) and the Institute of Genetics and Cytology of the National Academy of Sciences (a team of researchers led by Oleg Davydenko, the supervisor of the nonchromosomal heredity laboratory).
Alexei Mikulich has had his book “Belarusians in Genetic Space. Ethnic Anthropology” published recently. He has been studying the peculiarities of the Belarusian “breed” since the 60s. He has been to hundreds of villages, cooperated with archeologists that discovered the remains of ancient people and their culture. The researcher juxtaposed the results of various tests and managed to educe the formula of a typical Belarusian. The anthropologist tries to prove that the appearance of the inhabitants of the area between the rivers Neman and Dnepr has hardly changed over the past 35 hundred years. Nevertheless, Belarus’ neighbors also left a mark on the typical Belarusian character, the scientist notes.
— Back in the Soviet times we used to say that Belarusians were pure Slavs. We cannot be so sure now. First of all, the most ancient people that lived here were the Balts. The Balts’ genes are very strong in us — and this is the main difference from the Russians, who have had a very strong influence from the Finns in the north and the Mongols influence in the east. The closest Russian type is the resident of the western provinces of Russia. In the early 20th century many western Russians were speaking various dialects of the Belarusian language, and I was pretty much surprised when I learnt that the genetic research and linguistic findings produced almost the same result.
The scientific method used by Alexei Mikulich is quite simple: he takes blood from the test object, then isolates the DNA and has the data processed by the computer. After that he receives the average.
— I would not be so sure that the typical Belarusian is a blond with blue eyes, as most people say, says the scientist. — And still we have some typical national features. The most typical blood types are O+ and A+, and the hair is for the most part fair. If all eyes are categorized as blue, dark and mixed type, the typical Belarusian would have something between blue and the mixed type.
Where do the typical Belarusians live? Mikulich names the Dnepr area, but warns that the research has not been completed yet. His initial tests were based on the analysis of male chromosomes.
— It has been confirmed lately that it is the woman that bears the most important genetic information, Alexei Mikulich says.
So far the Belarusian genetic databank has been kept in Moscow. Oleg Davydenko has collected over 10,000 DNA samples over the past 18 months, and this DNA bank will remain in Belarus to provide samples for future genetic research. Davydenko’s project is named “Ethnogenomics of the Belarusian Nation” and was originally ordered by the State Scientific and Technologies Committee. The plans of Davydenko’s team are grand and very ambitious: to study the indigenous population of the country and then take other nations that live here, especially Russians, Poles and Jews. The projects aims to derive a comprehensive portrait of the original and modern Belarusian, unveil some historic mysteries and myths and even deal with many health problems.
— Residents of certain areas are prone to cardiovascular diseases, while some population groups have an excellent immunity. Representatives of some population groups may even be infected with HIV, but AIDS never affects them, and they remain healthy. Also, there are very rare alleles that may help forensic officers find criminals using minute blood samples.
In about 18 months, after the geneticists study the material they have collected, historians, medics and criminologists will all have many answers at once. So far, Belarus has remained a blank space in anthropological genetics compared to Russia.
Some 30,000 genes have been registered, but only 100 have been studied. A human nature is endless, and the question who was the forefather of the Belarusian nation will remain without any answers for some time. Scientists may only look back as far as 3,500 years.
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