When National Geographic’s Genographic Project was all shiny and new, my husband Ken and I joined 678,632 other individuals in over 140 countries in sending in samples of our DNA to be included in the database. This was not inexpensive, but we figured it was our contribution to scientific research and, besides, who doesn’t want to unlock the secrets hidden in their DNA?
In due time we received a package from National Geographic and the big reveal was this: our ancestors originated in Africa long, long ago, but had more recently hailed from Northern Europe. To which we could only say, “Duh!” As it turns out, we had opted for the Economy DNA Package. If we had wanted to know whether we had inherited a genetic predisposition to like cilantro or what percentage Neanderthal we were, well, that’ll be extra.
Or would it?
My grandfather, James H. Zant, who liked a good story, told this one about an acquaintance’s visit to a local Cherokee chief. “Dig deep, White Man,” the chief reportedly told his visitor. “Puppy at bottom of pot.”
A few nights ago, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, mired in thought, when our dog Nellie deposited herself before me, trawling for attention. I obliged, closing my eyes as I scratched her ears, and conjured up an image of myself in my mind’s eye. However, instead of picturing the little old lady I am all too rapidly metamorphosing into and her (sort of trusty) dog, what I saw was a girl — nine or ten, Neanderthal, grubby and sitting on a rock in a dark place barely illuminated by flickering fire light, scratching the ears of a wolf cub.
Now, my view of reality has always been a tad elastic — the result, no doubt, of coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies and all that that entailed — so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to conclude l that what I had glimpsed in my mind’s eye was a distant ancestor, one embedded in my DNA, that I had, in fact, descended from those humanoids who, laboring in different places over vast expanses of time, succeeded in the magic trick of turning wolves into dogs, that, just as our domestication of dogs impacted their genome, so their domestication of us has impacted ours, meaning that the term “Dog People” describes something not superficial, but very fundamental. Which explains SO much. Why I cannot imagine a happy and contented life without a dog. Why my father, speaking of his life in the nursing home, says, “The only thing I really miss is a dog . . . ,” his voice trailing wistfully off.
Back when we acquired Nellie, we were unconvinced that she was, in fact, the Golden Retriever the Kijiji ad purported her to be, given her ridiculously long legs, her narrow muzzle and crooked tail, and, all of it, the whole nine yards, completely wired. While we never suffered from Buyers’ Remorse – well, maybe just a little when she hoovered up a finishing nail, necessitating a $2,500 surgery – we were, nevertheless, curious to know the ancestry of our whacky little bundle of fur and fun. So we tested her DNA.
Turns out she’s a Golden Retriever – quel surprise! — just the way it turns out Ken and I are Northern Europeans. As for delving any more deeply into our DNA, there’s really no need now. Not after my little epiphany. I know who I am, down deep: a Dog Person with slightly more than a dollop of Neanderthal. As for Nellie, she’s clearly a wolf.