“Race,” Ancestry, and Mitochondrial Eve

What is the difference between race and ancestry? “Race” is a concept that was invented in the 1700s – it isn’t a real biological category. The origins of “race” are traced to the 18th century and the emergence of science. This doesn’t mean that before the 1700s, people didn’t discriminate or treat people differently because of the way they looked. Instead, with the emergence of science, early scientists tried to categorize natural phenomena, however, their efforts – in many instances – were misguided and caused harm. Today in anthropology, for example, we refrain from using terms like “race” when we refer to others. We recognize that the term has no biological meaning and can only cause further harm if we continue to use it to segregate people. While there are certainly differences between us, we – in the social sciences – use the term “ancestry.”

Unfortunately, not all people use words that support the idea that there is a single race of humans: the human race. For example, while I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, I was taken back. Why? This is what she said:
“The American Dream is big enough for everyone: For people of all races and religions, for men and women, for immigrants, for LGBT people, and people with disabilities – for everyone” (H. Clinton, Nov., 9, 2016; 10:38-10:49).

Let me make no mistake here: I do appreciate Clinton’s message that the United States must be inclusive of all people no matter what their differences are; however, she does not use language that reinforces the idea that biological races do not exist – she is speaking to millions of people, and perhaps unknowingly, categorizing them into different types of humans.

The Emergence of Races: Scientific Racism

While Francois Bernier’s Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l’habitent (“New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it”) was published in 1684, Carl Linnaeus (the father of zoological taxonomy) was the first individual to divide Homo sapiens into “continental” varieties. In addition to creating separate continental varieties of Homo sapiens (europaeus, asiaticus, americanus, and afer), Linnaeus associated particular behavioral qualities with each category. For example, Homo sapiens afer was characterized as “lazy and crafty” while Homo sapiens europaeus was characterized as “active and smart.” Science had created a system whereby humans were viewed within an ecological fallacy. In other words, so-called scientific labels were applied to entire populations and harmful biased stereotypes emerged.

The concept of race did not stop with Linnaeus. For example, Christoph Meiners (1785) was the first person to define the Caucasian race. (Please note that it is not appropriate to use terms like Caucasian anymore). Meiners proposed that there were two races: the “more attractive Caucasian race” (the “white race” as he argued) and the “ugly Black race.”

The racial-ball kept rolling and gained momentum: Early scientists continued to refine the concept into a “machine” that was built to deny people, on the basis of their phenotypes (physical features) full access to social, economic, and political life. To be sure, in 1775, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in his essay the “Natural Varieties of Mankind,” proposed that there were five distinct groups of humans: the Caucasoid race, Mongoloid race, American race, Negroid race, and the Malayan race. It is with the work of Blumenbach and Comte de Buffon that degeneration theory (people degenerated from a pure white race) was offered. In addition, it was at this point of history that the idea that the Caucasoid race was superior to all others was supported by the science of the day. Consequently, it is with these thinkers that scientific racism gained traction, especially because it could be used to justify exploitation of people based on the colour of their skin.

Today we recognize that there is only one extant (living) race among humans; however, beginning in the 1700s, scientists increasingly argued that people could be placed into discrete categories based on phenotypical features such as skin colour. Remember, scientific racism is not a real science. It is a pseudo-science like phrenology – it is not real. It’s nonsense.

A Connection to Religion: A Superiority Complex

Blumenbach and Buffon believed that all people originated from Adam and Eve (monogenesis). While some people thought that God created some people with light skin and others with dark skin (polygenesis), Blumenbach and Buffon believed that people degenerated from the pure form that God created (degeneration theory). At this time in history, there were many theories that tried to account for the differences between the colour of people. For example, Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers of the United States, argued that people with dark skin had an inherited disease that could be cured.

(By the way, is this making you sick? It should. This is truly a sad moment in the history of humankind).

Thinkers like Buffon argued that Caucasoid humans were created in the image of God and therefore were superior to all other races. How did they arrive at this type of conclusion? You will note that “so-called Whites” are defined according to geography: Mount Caucasus or the region around modern-day Georgia.

In the United States, a physician and physical anthropologist by the name of Samuel Morton began to collect and measure skulls. Through his craniometric work (measuring cranial features such as size and capacity), Morton concluded that “races” could be arranged according to brain size and superiority. While his objective was to support the idea of polygenesis, discredit the idea that all humans came from Noah’s three sons, and illustrate that discrete races (and species) did exist among humans, Morton created a racial hierarchy. According to thinkers like him, “Blacks” benefited from slavery. To be sure, according to Thomas (2001, p. 41),

Morton believed that his skull sample proved that Caucasians were the superior race – with Teutons and Anglo-Saxons at the top, Jews in the middle, and Hindus on the bottom. . . . The Chinese [were] . . . a ‘monkey race’ and the black Hottentots [e.g., the Khoi !Kung] were like the lower animals. To Morton, these racial differences reflected a divine master plan. The Caucasian-type had been and always would be supreme – God’s will expressed as natural order and verified by empirical science according to Morton.

In Europe, by the 1800s the idea of a Hamitic race emerged: so-called scholars came to view the people within Africa as belonging to a Caucasoid racial subgroup. In other words, these early scientists drew upon Biblical stories discussed in the Genesis and argued that Ham was the ancestor of Africans. A misinterpretation of the Book led these scholars to believe that Noah’s curse upon his son Canaan resulted in dark skin, for example. During the Belgian colonialist period, this theory was put into action. Belgian colonialists believed that the Tutsi were more Caucasian than the Hutu and were better suited to govern. They began to measure physical features of the Hutu and Tutsi, like nose size and length, in an attempt to determine who was more Caucasian and thus superior. The Tutsi were given control of Rwanda. Eventually, the Tutsi came to believe in the Colonialist myth and oppressed the Hutu.

Eventually, the Hutu took control of the political apparatus in Rwanda, and on April 7, 1994, a 100-day genocidal mass slaughter of the Tutsi by the Hutu majority government began. An estimated one million Rwandans were murdered – 70% of which were Tutsi. This is just one example or extreme segregation of people based entirely on assumptions not grounded in science

Discussion: Mitochondrial Eve and Out of Africa

Biologically speaking, races do not exist. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have genes that can identify our ancestry or “ancestries.” In contrast, it means that while we all have genetic markers for the “homelands” (continents, for example) that our ancestors evolved within; we all belong to one single race: the human race. In addition, just because we don’t belong to a separate “race,” it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be proud of who were are – of course, we should! We are African. We are European. We are First Nation Peoples. We are Asian. We are East Asian. We are Southeast Asian . . . . This is our ancestry. Being proud, however, doesn’t mean that we are superior to any other ancestral group either – we are all equal.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, groundbreaking work in molecular anthropology was published. Researchers had discovered that all modern DNA can be traced to a single group of people in Africa (the Khoi !Kung are the closest modern genetic relatives) that lived 140,000 to 200,000 years ago (a more recent analysis suggests they lived some 100,000-150,000 years ago). This conclusion about the origins of all modern DNA was achieved by tracing mutations in mitochondrial DNA (a type of DNA that is passed on between mother and daughter). The theory was dubbed Mitochondrial Eve Theory. It doesn’t mean that there was one mother of all people – there were other women. Mitochondrial Eve, however, represents the source of an unbroken female line of descent. All living women can trace their descent to her.

“Isn’t evolution a theory?” you ask.

While evolutionary theory has been criticized by some politicians and religious leaders, it is supported by a wealth of fossil and genetic evidence and is difficult to ignore. To abandon evolutionary theory really implies that the baby must be thrown out with the bathwater.

In other words, denying evolutionary theory (because it is the foundation that biology and the biological sciences rest on) forces the abandonment of the biological sciences. To be sure, during a Vatican address in 2002, Ratzinger (now Pope emeritus) commented on the topic of evolution; he said: “converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on Earth.” While Catholicism only represents one faith among many, other faiths do share similar perspectives.

Religious Differences on the Question of Evolution (United States, 2007)
Percentage who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth
Source: Pew Forum[12]
Buddhist 81%
Hindu 80%
Jewish 77%
Unaffiliated 72%
Catholic 58%
Orthodox 54%
Mainline Protestant 51%
Muslim 45%
Hist. Black Protest. 38%
Evang. Protestant 24%
Mormon 22%
Jehovah’s Witnesses 8%
Total U.S. population 48%

How Did the Earth Get Populated with People?

There wasn’t just one wave of humans that migrated out of Africa. For example, Homo erectus was the first hominid to leave Africa around 1.8 mya (millions of years ago). Homo erectus migrated to areas of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. By 70,000 yBP, however, Homo erectus has become extinct. Somewhere around 300,000, another group of humans migrated out of Africa: Homo heidelbergensis. Some of these individuals migrated northwestward and evolved into the Neanderthals while others migrated northeastward and evolved into the Denisovans.

We are not the direct relatives of Homo erectus, Neanderthals or Denisovans. Our sub-species of humans evolved from an African species named Homo heidelbergensis in Africa. This species eventually led to our subspecies. Some 200,000 yBP, then, Homo sapiens sapiens (or modern Homo sapiens) emerged in Africa, and by 70,000-60,000 they exited Africa (there were a number of different groups that migrated out at different times, though).

As modern Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, they “interacted” with other extant Homo species. In other words, as modern Homo sapiens moved into areas of the Middle East and Europe where it interbred with Neanderthals.

Anthropologists weren’t sure about this fact until more recent research shed light on the evolutionary situation. In other words, once the Neanderthal genome was “mapped” and compared to the modern Human genomes, we knew we interbred with Neanderthals – their DNA exists within groups of non-African modern humans. Further, we also know that another non-modern human group (the Denisovans) interbred with individuals that migrated into Asia.

So, with the advancement of science and technology, we continue to learn more about who we are and how we got here. For example, research has sought to shed light on the peopling of the Americas through genetic research. What was discovered? First Nations people carry African DNA. In addition to the African DNA, Asian DNA markers are also present, and some groups exhibit Polynesian markers. This confirms that First Nations Peoples migrated out of Asia and nearby regions at various points of time throughout our more recent history.


ABC News. (2016). Hillary Clinton full concession speech, election 2016. ABC News.

Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khK9fIgoNjQ

American Museum of Natural History. (2014) Science Bulletins: Neanderthal DNA

persists in Humans. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5Pz0EFo5sc

American Museum of Natural History. Science Bulletins: Ancient Humans get a Genetic

Census. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWSRs-5ZlFQ

Business Insider. (2015). Animated map shows how humans migrated across the globe.

Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJdT6QcSbQ0

Dass, A. (2016). The beauty of human skin in every color [Video file]. Retrieved

from https://www.ted.com/talks/angelica_dass_the_beauty_of_human_skin_in_every_color#t-569612

Head-Measurer of Tremearne. Image. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

Thomas, T.H. (2001). Skull wars: Kennewick man, archaeology, and the battle for Native

identity. Basic Books.

University of Pennsylvania. (2011). The Morton collection of human skulls at Penn State

Museum. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emDuNjVs7f8

Where did the first Americans come from? Seeker. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EBknU7D1OI

Wofford, T. (2014). Pope Francis’s remarks on evolution are not that controversial among

Roman Catholics. Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/pope-franciss-remarks-evolution-are-not-controversial-among-roman-catholics-281115


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