Africa-to-America (45,000 B.C.)

                                                  The Longest Journey 

Unlike all of the other travelogues on this web site, this is not the story of our personal travels.   It is the story of the journey that my ancestors have taken over the past 45,000 years , involving over 2,000 generations and covering four continents from their original  home  in Africa to the shores of White Bear Lake, leaving their genetic signposts along the way for us to trace.

             San (or Bushman) Family - Giant's Castle Cave - South Africa                                                                    Migration Route - Ackerman Clan

Several years of genealogical research have succeeded in tracing our Ackerman ancestors back eight generations to Johannes Georg Ackermann, a shoemaker, who lived in Kirchhausen, Germany, in the late 1600s.  While tracing our family history back these three hundred and fifty years has revealed some fascinating stories, it has created an even great curiosity about who came before our great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.  Who were our distant ancestors? Where did they live?  Where did they come from? 

A new study launched by National Geographic and IBM, called the Genographic Project, combines population genetics and molecular biology and traces our family's genetic origins back to a single man, whom the project calls “Adam”, who lived 60,000 years ago in the savannahs of East Africa in the region of the Rift Valley, perhaps in present-day Kenya or Tanzania or Ethiopia.  It was “Adam”, the genealogical “father” of everyone alive today, who bequeathed a common “Y” chromosome to me, the Ackerman Clan and all of the other six billion people who now populate the earth.  

It is important to note that Adam does not represent the first human.  Adam had his own  human ancestors as well but we have no remaining genetic evidence of them.   Among Adam’s ancestors were the human-like hominids (Australopithecus), who lived in Africa as far back as three million years ago including Lucy, the “missing link”, whose remains were discovered at Olduvai Gorge in the Rift Valley in Eastern Africa by Louis Leaky, the famous paleontologist.   We visited Olduvai Gorge on a safari in Tanzania in 1989 and have had a fascination with paleooanthropology ever since.     

It is also important to note that, unlike his biblical namesake,  Adam was not the only man living in his era.  He is unique because his descendants are the only ones to have survived to this day.  It was his gene pool alone that provided the common genetic origin for all the people who today inhabit our planet.  Perhaps Adam and his small tribe of hunter-gatherers were a little smarter or possessed better tools than their neighbors. Perhaps it was natural selection or simply mere chance.  But, for whatever reason, it was Adam and his direct descendants who went on to populate the earth while the other human lineages all eventually died out. 

Because Adam lived in Africa some 60,000 years ago, it follows that all humans must have lived there prior to that time and are believed to be directly linked to today’s San tribesmen, commonly called “Bushmen”.  Africa’s San people carry more evolutionary lineage in their DNA than any other people and thus exhibit the most direct, living link to Adam.  Their language, the “click” language, is another link to our ancient ancestors.  The language employs an amazing 141 distinct sounds compared to English with only 31 sounds, suggesting  the ancient origins of their language.   

Today’s San people, therefore, may give us a hint of what our early African ancestors looked like.   The San are small people with light skin, tightly curled hair and a thick layer of skin over the eyes.  Their features are much different from the typical Negroid Bantu features that we associate with Central Africans and with African-Americans or Afro-Caribbeans, who came to America from Africa as slaves.  Nor do they bear any likeness to  the stereotypical caveman look associated with the Neanderthals, with their white skin and hairy, brutish appearance.  Grandfather Adam, was probably a thin, dark skinned, medium height, thick-eyed person, who wouldn’t look all that out of place today dressed in a suit and sitting next to you on a bus - or in the back row of our next family reunion photo.  Having first been introduced to these charming and very admirable San people in the delightful movie called “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and then, having encountered our San cousins directly in our recent travels to Namibia and South Africa, I must confess to a certain sense of pride which followed this revelation that we are genetic cousins and mutual descendents from the same distant grandfather.  

So how did this small African tribe come to populate our planet?  For years, archeologists sought the answer in the only clues they could find, the scattered remains of our distant ancestors.  Yet these ancient bones and artifacts could only tell a fragmentary tale.  Just in the last ten years, however, geneticists have discovered that the complete records of our prehistoric migration are inscribed deep within our genes.  To further this knowledge, the Genographic researchers are in the process of collecting over 100,000 samples of DNA from peoples across the world. 

Random mutations to DNA, which happen naturally and which are usually harmless, are called markers. Once a marker has been identified, geneticists can go back in time and trace it to the point at which it first occurred. In this way, they are able to determine when and where a new lineage began. If they can be traced to a particular geographic region, these lineages can be used to track prehistoric migration patterns.

Mutations in certain components of our DNA have accumulated in sequences something like the layers of an archeological dig.  By comparing these sequences across global populations and then plotting the results on a map, scientists have revealed the broad outline of early human movements based on the genetic signposts left by our ancestors as they ventured out of Africa to colonize the world.  Hugging coastlines, skirting deserts, wandering across grasslands, these hunter-gatherers spread out across the world following their food sources.  Progress has been slow, but after 50,000 years humans now occupy every habitable continent on Earth.  Along the way, they gave rise to the diverse populations found around the world today. 

Val and I  sent our own DNA samples for testing and inclusion in the study.  Based on my test results, I can now confirm my genetic relationship with Adam and my membership in haplogroup R1B, a particular lineage defined by a genetic marker called M343. Further, I  can determine the route that my ancestors took from Africa to America.  One might think it was simply a matter of traveling up the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and taking the first left.  In fact, the route we traveled was a bit more circuitous.  It took us over 40,000 years to reach our destination.  

My ancestors were not the first to leave Africa.  Earlier species had already begun to spread out over the Eurasian continent  50,000 years ago before our own distant ancestors began their journey 5,000 years later.  Some of these very first migrants followed the southern coastline of the Asian continent and eventually found their way to Australia.

Most non-Africans are not descended from this first “out-of-Africa” migration.  The majority of us in the Western world can trace our lineage instead to a second migration through the Middle East, which took place about 45,000 years ago.  Taking advantage of one of the cyclical warm, moist periods which made transit of the Sahara desert possible, these early migrants journeyed up to the Middle East in search of expanded hunting grounds.  Many stayed there.  Our group of ancestors followed the grasslands to the great steppe lands of Central Asia and on eastward across the steppes until they ran into the massive mountains of the south central Asian highlands, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas, which formed an impenetrable barrier to further eastward migration.  

Over the next 5,000 years my progenitors moved north from the highlands to the vast and game laden steppes of what is now Kazakhstan and southern Siberia.  Although the game, which included bison, deer and even wooly mammoths, provided a plentiful food source, they had to learn to cope with the much colder climate.  These Stone Age men learned to sew and make animal skin clothing, to make simple tools and to use flint heads in their weapons, demonstrating a growing ability to adapt to new surroundings. 

Around 35,000 years ago, a segment of this population split off and moved westward into Europe, where they began to make their own dramatic mark on the continent.  Their cave paintings, some dating back to 35,000 B.C., signaled the arrival of humans with artistic skill.  We visited the paintings in the Altamira caves

   The Cradle of Civilization - Olduvai Gorge - Northern Tanzania                                                                                   Cave Painting - Altamira, Spain

in northern Spain during our years in Italy.  These magnificent paintings, done over 15,000 years ago, were made using black charcoal and natural pigments such as red and brown ochre.  They depicted bison, horses, deer and other ice age animals and bear a certain resemblance to similar animals I painted as a young boy.  Could this be another indication of my direct ancestry to these Stone Age artists? These so-called Cro-Magnon people of Europe made woven clothing and constructed huts to withstand the frigid climates of the Ice Age era.  They used relatively advanced tools of stone, bone and ivory.  Jewelry, carvings and the cave paintings bear witness to their surprisingly advanced culture. 

The Neanderthal people were still living in Europe when the Cro-Magnon arrived from the east.  Soon after their arrival, the era of the Neanderthals came to a close.  Genetic evidence proves that the Neanderthal, who had lived in Europe since before 100,000 B.C., were not human ancestors but an evolutionary dead end.  There is no evidence of a struggle or even significant contact between the two groups.  It is likely that the smarter, more resourceful human descendents simply out competed the Neanderthals for scarce Ice Age resources and thus hastened their demise.  

During the early Cro-Magnon period, a large ice mass covered all of northern Europe in what is considered the great Ice Age.  The European population of that period was concentrated in the more hospitable southern European climates of Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean region.   The end of the Ice Age marked the beginnings of agrarian community living as the hunter-gathers gradually undertook to plant, harvest and store crops and to domesticate indigenous animals.  This more settled community living, in turn, gave rise to a greatly increased rate of population growth and the beginnings of a major social evolution.  By the end of the Ice Age, the population of Europe is estimated to have grown to 60,000 people.

It was probably sometime after 10,000 B.C., as the great northern ice cap receded, that my ancestors moved northwards, settling in Germany, adopting the surname of Ackermann and opening their first shoe store. The final leg of the journey occurred only a brief, one hundred fifty years ago, when great-grandfather, Franz Ackermann, migrated to America and landed on the docks of New York City. Three generations later, with a stop along the way in Illinois, this branch of the Ackerman clan landed in Minnesota on the gentle shores of White Bear Lake.  

Valerie's ancestors took a slightly different route out of Africa.  Based on her mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup K classification, it appears that her people headed directly north from Africa, through the Middle East ending up in Scandinavia as some of the original Vikings.  Their subsequent move to England could have taken place as a result of the Norman (North Man) invasion of England in 1066 or with the Viking invasions a few centuries earlier.   In any case, it is exciting (but not at all surprising) to think that I am married to a descendant of the Vikings! 

It has been an epic journey and  a fascinating genealogical discovery.  Most significantly, it is an important reminder that we are all really Africans under the skin and that old fashioned concepts of race are not only divisive but are fundamentally wrong.

This journey may also mark the end of my genealogical undertakings.  What more is there for me to do now that I’ve traced our ancestors all the way back to Adam?  


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