BENNINGTON -- A group of students from Southern Vermont College and high schoolers from Lincoln High School in Yonkers, New York learned on Thursday the results of DNA testing that attempted to trace their lineage back thousands of years.
The program was the culmination of the college's "From the Shoes of Our Ancestors" seminar, which is a collaborative effort between SVC, Lincoln High School, and the Bennington Museum. Taught by Dr. Al DeCiccio, the class allows students to trace their roots "by recording oral histories, documenting them through genealogical research, which included vital record searches and online investigations, and illustrating findings in family trees, graphic and poster displays, audio recordings, and displays of family objects," said DeCiccio.
The high school students sign a memorandum of understanding with SVC that if they attend college upon graduation from high school, they will receive full credit for having taken a college course. "If we give students college credit for learning about themselves," said DeCiccio, then perhaps that would foster interest in them pursuing a post-secondary educations.
"They were so happy to participate," said their teacher, Dr. Dean Sighafi, "When they learn more about themselves, they grow spritually." This was the second year Lincoln High School has participated in the program.
The highlight of the program came when the class Skyped with Bennett Greenspan, president of FamilyTreeDNA, the company that performed the DNA analysis. Greenspan had an individual report for each student, and read them some of the highlights. Greenspan was in Washington D.C. working on a production for National Geographic, but he called the talk with students the highlight of his day.
"There's a tight correlation between history and DNA," said Greenspan, "and your history book is written in your cells. If we interrogate your DNA, you can learn more about yourself than you can by looking in a mirror. It's a real educational opportunity."
"The difficult part," said Greenspan, "is that I don't know anything about you. I'm just using a tool." Despite that, his software accurately predicted that two girls in the class were first cousins, and even suggested that two of the students, unbeknownst to them, might be third cousins, although he noted that they may only indicate that their maternal line may have originated from the same geographic area, rather than actual relation.
One student, Greenspan was proud to announce, had tested as being more Native American than anyone else in the company's general testing database, with between 87 and 100 percent of his DNA being Native American. On the other side of the spectrum, one student had DNA from Native American, African, Mediterranean, central European, and northern European ancestors. Greenspan described her DNA as "a cornucopia."
Students also presented their researched family trees, which included the tree itself, photographs, an object that they feel represents their family, and a poem written by the student. Most students chose family heirlooms as their objects, including cufflinks, a watch, rosary beads, and an engraved lighter.
"Typically, what we know in science is less than what we don't know. That's a sombering thought," said Greenspan, who spoke in closing about how much DNA science has improved our understanding of humanity. Rather than believing, as scientists once did, that humanity came from four distinct races (White people, black people, red people, and yellow people, as Greenspan described them), the study of DNA has shown that all modern humans descend from a genetic line that originated in Africa. "There's one race," said Greenspan, "the human race. These artificial barriers that we've put up have done us absolutely no good."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB