New Tools Unveil Old Secrets
My DNA results are in. My maternal ancestors (traced through mitochondrial DNA) have been in the British Isles (74%) and Scandinavia (24%) for the past ten thousand years. This part of my DNA most closely resembles that found in Ireland and Scotland, where lots of Scandinavians (Danes, Vikings) settled among the Gaelic and earlier populations.
As you’d expect, the line goes back to West Asia before that and eventually to Africa. I’m 1.2% Neanderthal (compared to 2.1% average). This is part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project, which collects data from members of the public and uses it not only to inform individuals, but to learn more about ancient patterns of migration and settlement.
Also in the news: A few weeks ago, researchers following clues from satellite images found what appear to be traces of a Viking settlement in North America, three hundred miles farther south than the one already known. Both are in Newfoundland, but the one found in 1960 was on the northern tip and this one is at the southwestern end. The two sites are similar in style of construction and evidence of iron works.
DNA and satellite technology are expanding our knowledge of long ago. As technology advances, it will be fascinating to see what else it will tell us about the past.
Invented Words, Gifts of the Bard
Even if you hobnob with the most jaded, remorseless pedant in academe, whose laughable, worthless, zany, flawed arguments dishearten you, the monumental radiance of the English language can’t fail to arouse amazement and excitement.
Fifteen words in that admittedly zany sentence were invented by William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this Saturday (April 23, 1616). Altogether he enriched English by more than 1700 words, many of them by combining existing words or adding a prefix or suffix.
I sometimes hear people treat vocabulary and grammar as fixed entities, correct or incorrect for all time. But English is always changing, and surely no one has changed it more than the Bard of Avon.
Factoid: Shakespeare’s exact birth and death dates are unknown. Tradition assigns both to April 23 based on records of his baptism and burial a few days later.
Being Somebody Else
Winnie-the-Pooh strolled through the forest, proudly humming a little hum he had made up that very morning. Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, rum-tum-tum-tiddle-um. “Well, he was humming to himself, and walking along gaily, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like, being somebody else, when suddenly, he came to a sandy bank.”
Research studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, York University in Toronto, and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh confirm that certain kinds of reading promote empathy, or understanding what it feels like to be somebody else. Reading a story lights up the same parts of the brain as interacting with real people.
Many books read to young children encourage them to put themselves in the characters’ minds. How would it feel to be a bear who had just made up a new hum? These children understand other people’s beliefs and wishes better than children who don’t hear such stories.
For older readers, literary fiction has a similar effect, unlike popular (genre) fiction or television. In genre fiction such as romance, and on TV, exciting things happen to characters who are generally stereotyped and predictable. The guesswork is in what will happen, not how people think or feel. Literary fiction succeeds by offering complex characters, explaining them less, and making the reader fill in the gaps. This flexes the mental muscles of understanding.
Projecting yourself into minds from a different era isn’t easy. It takes a willing suspension of beliefs and assumptions to understand why people did what they did. This ability to detach from your own mindset is called historical imagination.
In historical fiction, anachronism is almost inevitable. The author confronts not only personal perspective but also the need to connect with modern readers. Diana Gabaldon does this brilliantly in Outlander by approaching 18th-century Scotland through the eyes of an Englishwoman from the 1940s, not exactly today but near enough for readers to relate. Barring time travel, in any novel set long ago it’s a sure bet that the good guys will be those whose values are most like ours.
Contrary to what the word “imagination” might suggest, historical imagination is most important in nonfiction history. It helps reveal misleading sources, forgeries, and faulty interpretation. Consider the modern “rehabilitation” of King Richard III of England, the final loser of the Wars of the Roses. Was he the vicious tyrant of Shakespeare’s historical drama, who murdered his young nephews to secure the throne? Or the innocent paragon of recent popular culture, unjustly maligned by the true villains? It takes a feat of imagination to step back from the saint-or-monster debate into the mindset of that violent age, when probable death awaited any unsuccessful contender for the throne, including Richard.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.