While I was working on a master's degree in Linguistics at the University of Utah back in the early 1970s, I became aware of the fact that many languages in the world were disappearing. My research for my master's thesis was about the Shoshoni language. We used informant tapes of the last native, non-English speaking Shoshoni speaker. She died many years ago, but the language is not considered "dead" because it is being revived and taught. In addition, the Shoshonis did not have a written language and so a written form of the language was developed to preserve, among other things, the genealogy of the people.
Quoting from The Language Conservancy in an article entitled, "Languages on the Edge of Extinction,"
Since 1950, the number of unique languages spoken throughout our world has steadily declined. Today, the voices of more than 7,000 languages resound across our planet every moment, but about 2,900 or 41% are endangered. At current rates, about 90% of all languages will become extinct in the next 100 years.
Now, in addition to language loss, I have more recently become aware that when a language dies, a culture also dies and the unique DNA of those in that culture is lost and unlike with reviving and teaching a dead language, there is no way to revive a loss of a culture's DNA. It is only when sequencing an entire genome became both possible and practical, that the loss of a culture's DNA became recognized as a critical issue and the integrity and survival of the entire family tree of humanity was recognized as being at risk. The great diversity of the world's human DNA is one reason we have survived.
As genealogists, we have a familiar example of what happens when a species loses its genetic diversity from the example of the Irish Potato Famine.
Some 8,000 years ago the potato was domesticated in the Andes of South America. After the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500, the potato was introduced to Europe. Eventually, one strain of the potato, the Irish Lumper, which was essentially the only potato strain grown in Ireland, was the underlying cause of the Great Famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1849. As a result of the terrible famine more than 1.5 million people left Ireland and came to the United States. As a result, those of us with Irish ancestors now face the difficulty of doing genealogical research in Ireland. All this happened because of a lack of genetic diversity in one species of potato.
The issue is easy to understand even if DNA is not. Thousands of communities around the world do not have access to the records needed to discover their family history. Relatively, very few communities have access to DNA testing and these thousands of communities do not have access to DNA tests needed to analyze their genomes and we and they do not know where they belong in the vast family tree of all humanity.
Fortunately, there a people rushing to preserve both languages and DNA. It is true that both languages and DNA are lost when even one person dies. But when the last native-speaker of a language dies, the language is officially dead. Fortunately, when one individual in a culture dies only that individual's unique DNA is lost. However, some of the traces of all their ancestors remain in the dead person's relatives. But we are facing a crisis where whole cultures are in danger of entirely disappearing and as a result the loss of DNA is irreplaceable. Quoting a prominent DNA genealogist, Diahan Southard,
Without representing every population throughout humanity, the tree that we're building will be disfigured, it will be lopsided, it will be at the very best incomplete. And without that full picture, we just can't get a really solid understanding of our common connection with each other.
Those working to remediate this lack of DNA testing include My Family Forward, a non-profit, charitable organization that has taken on the task of documenting the DNA of underserved populations.
Quoting from their website,
When analyzing participants in the world’s global DNA record, geneticists found that:
- 81% of participants were from Europe, the United States and Canada
- 14% were from Asia
- 3% were of African descent
- Less than 1% were of Hispanic & Latin American descent, Pacific Islander, Arabic & Middle Eastern descent
- And 0.05% were of Indigenous heritage
Genealogists, more than any other segment of our world population, should understand the need to learn about and support efforts to expand DNA coverage to the underrepresented cultures of the world. Many of us who are involved in genealogical research appreciate the power and contribution of DNA testing towards identifying ancestors who otherwise would be undiscoverable. But the loss of even one entire culture's DNA has a greater impact than merely making genealogical research more difficult.
Quoting again from My Family Forward's website and Dr. Lincoln Nadauld, Executive Director of Precision Medicine and Precision Genomics, a World-leading oncologist and a DNA genome sequencing advocate:
I've personally been involved in mapping the genomes of a population. I cannot over state how impactful it has been for that population, for those communities, and especially for those individuals. It has literally saved lives. It has driven understanding, and it has promoted education.
My Family Forward is committed to providing 1,000 whole genome and 9,000 genotype DNA sampling kits to 30 specific populations across the world. (10,000 is the magic number needed to gain valuable insights into the population). The benefit from this effort will be to help underrepresented populations gain a greater understanding of their heritage and help scientists use the genetic code to find causes and cures of chronic diseases threatening the family tree of humanity.
If you would like more information about this valuable project, click the link below.
I am sure they can use your help also.