Genetic Odysseys Explain Why We Are The Way We Are

Reference: The Nation // Michael L. Tan

A Wikipedia entry on Spanish mestizos in the Philippines notes that “a study conducted by Stanford University based on DNA samples extrapolated that around 3.6 per cent of Filipinos have European genetic ancestries”.

Recently, I wrote about how curious human beings are about origins, and how that can sometimes translate to “racial accounting”, where we try to put percentages to our genes. This kind of racial accounting has become more intense with advances in genetics, but I’d urge caution here.

An example comes with that statement from Wikipedia. I looked up the study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2001, and it turned out the researchers were looking at the genes of 1,209 people from Southeast Asia, Oceania, southern China and Taiwan, to determine if there was “gene flow” (interbreeding) between Homo erectus (a now extinct species) and Homo sapiens (modern humans). Included in the sample was a Philippine sample of 28 individuals.

The journal article has a section on European chromosomes, and notes that “some European introgression was also evident in Southeast Asia (2.3 per cent-7.8 per cent) and the Philippines (3.6 per cent)”. That was a percentage for the 28 individuals and should not be projected for the entire Philippine population.

Can a larger sample be used then to make such projections? Maybe, but that takes us to the question of what we’re looking for. The Inquirer ran an article on Michael Purugganan, the Filipino-American geneticist who has called for a study of the human genome in the Philippines, titled “Who is the Filipino?” But Purugganan himself wrote an article (’s Science section) that is more appropriately titled, “What is the Filipino?” (“who” being a matter of identity while “what” does orient us toward genetics).

The problem is that genetic materials do not always correspond with the labels we have created across time. The Zobel de Ayalas, for example, are usually referred to as Spaniards, but the Ayalas are of Basque origin, and the Basques are very linguistically and genetically different from other Spaniards and, for that matter, Europeans. The Zobels, on the other hand, trace their roots back to Germany.

The term “Kastila” is a bit more accurate because it refers to “Castilian” as a language and as a population group found in Spain, different from the Catalonians (Barcelona is in the Catalonia) and the Basques. But Kastila became a generic term we used for anyone who came from the Iberian peninsula in Europe, which includes the Castilian, the Catalonian, the Basque in Spain, and neighbouring Portugal, Magellan’s home country.

If I may take a slight detour, “Kano” too, is now a generic term that applies to anyone who looks, well, Amerikano, whatever that might be, and anyone who claims to have “American blood” will have an even more complicated genetic background to unravel.

Let’s return to the Kastila. An article published in Blackwoods magazine in 1818, “People and Prospects of the Philippines”, notes that almost all of the 5,000 military men stationed in the Philippines in the late 18th century were not Spaniards, not Castillians, but “South Americans”. And “what” might these South Americans have been, genetically? Some would have been mestizos, the result of gene flow again of all kinds of Europeans with indigenous peoples who, it turns out, aren’t that indigenous either, being descendants of people who migrated from northern Asia through several centuries over land bridges across the Bering Strait into north and south America.

So next time you see a Filipino who looks Aztec or Mayan, think of the odysseys that could have introduced those genes, not just of South Americans who came to the Philippines but of Filipino indio seafarers who were in the galleons sailing back and forth between the Philippines and Mexico. I’ve met Cubans and Mexicans who claim Filipino ancestry, and will appreciate hearing from Filipino readers who have South Americans in their family tree.

What about those claiming Chinese ancestry? Genetic studies show very significant differences among northern and southern Chinese populations. Not only that: southern China also had waves of migrants from Southeast Asia, which is why so many local Chinese, even “pure” ones, look very “Filipino” (actually “Southeast Asian”, for want of a better term).

Is there an “original” Filipino then? The “Out of Taiwan” model, first proposed by archaeologist Peter Bellwood, suggests that it was migrants from among aboriginal groups in Taiwan that migrated southward into the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia and, in part, to Oceania. This contradicts the earlier but still popular wave-migration theory about the Negritos being the first humans to arrive in the Philippines, followed by “Indonesians”, then “Malays”.

Today, all over Oceania, as well as parts of mainland Southeast Asia, we have languages that are related to each other, belonging to the Austronesian family. So if we want to find the “Filipino”, we have to go back to these Austronesian origins.

If we want to go farther back for our roots as humans, it would have to be in Africa. We speak now of an “Out of Africa” model, where all of Homo sapiens came from. But there are still debates, and continuing research based on new fossil findings, as to how Asia, and the Philippines, came to be settled.

For example, another American Journal of Human Genetics article published in 2011 reports on a Denisovan genetic footprint in parts of Asia, including the Philippines, the Denisovan being a now-extinct human species, different from Homo sapiens but coexisting and apparently interbreeding with our ancestors more than 40,000 years ago.

Expect more studies to illuminate our mysterious prehistoric past, but even the present allows us to look for our origins, and our odysseys.

Paths of Origins: The Austronesian Heritage, published by ArtPostAsia, gives a panoramic sketch of Austronesian linkages, similarities in clothing, rituals, architecture and other aspects of culture that make us more conscious of our cultural (and genetic) ties with the rest of Southeast Asia.

We are who we are today because of several waves of ancestors who dared to leave their homes and explore new horizons. What shaped our cultures, our being “Filipino”, were people from different cultures who, instead of killing each other, learned to recognise each other’s humanity, sitting together and, over food and drink, learning new languages, exchanging new ideas, folk tales, jokes, songs, dances.

The mating is only part of the picture; cultural exchanges leave more powerful imprints when people of different cultures raise children together.

Archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and genetics will bring out a grand human tapestry, even as it continues to be a work in progress.