Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East. History nerd, linguistic geek, and devoted news junkie.
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The Trump administration bars Haitians from visas for low-skilled work

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ON JANUARY 17th the Trump administration said it was removing Haiti, Belize and Samoa from the list of countries whose residents are eligible for seasonal visas, usually used by farms. This came six days after Donald Trump reportedly complained about the number of immigrants arriving from “shithole” countries (the Department for Homeland Security’s justification for the move was more nuanced).  The suspended programmes are small: just 65 Haitian temporary agricultural workers arrived in 2016. That is partly because farms that use the visas must convince the government that there are no American workers to fill their job openings. But despite the tiny impact of such programmes, for the individuals involved, such policy decisions are utterly life changing. That is because the personal financial benefit of moving from a poor country to a rich one is vast. 

The debate over whether or not low-skilled immigration benefits America’s existing residents is well-rehearsed. Economists sympathetic to immigration say that workers from...Continue reading

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DNA from an escaped slave who ended up in Iceland ID’d in his descendants

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Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Hans Jonatan left Denmark in 1802 and eventually started a new life as an immigrant in Iceland. But he was an unusual Icelander. Unlike most Icelanders—and even most immigrants to Iceland—Hans Jonatan was mixed-race and a former slave. By piecing together genetic information from his descendants, scientists in Iceland have now reconstructed a substantial portion of Jonatan's own genome and genetic history.

Jonatan's history has been a subject of fascination, not only because he was an unexpected person to find in 19th-century Iceland, but because of his role in Danish legal history. His journey started in the Caribbean, where he was born to an enslaved mother in the then-Danish colony of St. Croix. Jonatan and his mother were brought along when the plantation-owning family returned to Denmark, but Jonatan managed to escape and ended up joining the Danish Navy.

When he was eventually caught and imprisoned, his lawyer argued for his emancipation on the grounds that slavery was illegal in Denmark, albeit still legal in Danish colonies. Jonatan lost the case, and the judge ordered that Jonatan should be returned to the Caribbean. He escaped again and disappeared from Denmark, turning up in 1805 in Iceland.

Filling in the gaps

Many details are missing from Jonatan’s story. For instance, it’s not clear exactly how he ended up in Iceland. The identity of his parents is also hazy. Historical records suggest that his father was European. His mother, Emilia Regina, was likely to have been a first- or second-generation slave, but the precise details of her origins are unknown.

While these questions have been difficult for historical records to answer, genetics might have the tools to answer some of them. But genetic data, while powerful, is also wildly complicated and messy. Piecing together the ancestry of someone who lived 200 years ago requires a lot of information, most of which we don't typically have access to.

As luck would have it, Iceland is a place that happens to have an abundance of that kind of unusual information. Because the country is so geographically isolated, it is also unusually genetically isolated; its small population also lends itself to detailed genealogical record-keeping.

Using this spectacular record-keeping, a team of scientists identified 182 of Jonatan's descendants in present-day Iceland. The researchers searched through these individuals' genetic data and found 674 stretches of genetic information that matched up with genomic data we've obtained from African DNA.

Narrowing down the data

"Because of the relative isolation of Icelanders," the team writes in a paper in Nature Genetics, "genuine African fragments in descendants of [Jonatan] are likely to originate only from [Jonatan himself]." That's as opposed to another, unidentified African source. But there's an important question here: are these fragments genuinely African? All human DNA is similar enough that it can be hard to tell.

To test this, the researchers looked at whether the fragments they found could definitely be considered African. They discovered that a small percentage of them were shared with Icelanders who otherwise seemed to have no African heritage. “Such fragments are... probably not truly African,” they write—the databases that link genetic features to specific regions of the world are still under development, and many of the details are still being ironed out.

For the remaining fragments, the scientists used only those that could be verified as truly representing descent from Jonatan by cross-referencing the genetic data with the genealogical records of the family tree. What they were left with essentially amounted to a collection of 593 puzzle pieces of African DNA: two from this great-grandson here, one from that great-great-granddaughter there, and another from that great-grandson that is mostly a duplicate but carries a small amount of extra data.

Once all those puzzle pieces were assembled, they amounted to a substantial portion of the overall picture: approximately 38 percent of Emilia Regina’s genome. The data suggested that Jonatan's mother's origins lay in Nigeria, Cameroon, or Benin and that, specifically, she was most closely related to the Yoruba people from Benin.

To see whether the historical claim of Jonatan's European paternity held water, the researchers also looked through the male line from Jonatan to his present-day descendants. They found a genetic signature that is “essentially absent from African populations” and found mostly in Europe.

“Virtual ancient DNA”

The homogeneity of the Icelandic population and their detailed family data allowed this reconstruction as a test case of what might be possible. In principle, though, the researchers argue that this kind of work might succeed in other cases, too, if there is also good genealogical and genetic data.

“Ancestor genome reconstruction of this kind can be viewed as a virtual ancient DNA study,” they write, “whereby genotype information is retrieved from a long-dead individual without the need for DNA samples from physical remains.”

But going back further than 10 generations is unlikely to produce any useful results, and the instances when this technique is possible are likely to be limited. When it is feasible, though, it will certainly be a powerful way to fill in the missing historical details of remarkable stories like Jonatan's.

Nature Genetics, 2018. DOI: 10.1038/s41588-017-0031-6  (About DOIs).

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Salt Bae Is Bringing His Meat and Sprinkling to New York City

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Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe is bringing his salt-sprinkling game to New York City on Thursday when he opens Nusr-Et Steakhouse. Gökçe became a viral sensation because of his love of meat and wrist action when it comes to completing the final touches by sprinkling salt.

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Sanctuary Wood in Ypres, Belgium

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Trenches at Sanctuary Wood.

When the Great War ended in November, 1918, farmers in northern France and Belgium returned to find their fields and villages totally destroyed by four years of trench warfare. Much of the area was covered over with grass, hedgerows, and forests. Except for one place.

A Belgian farmer called Schier returned to his land on a hill overlooking the ancient medieval city of Ypres, and, after clearing the trenches and craters of debris and casualties, simply left the site as it was.

Once part of the British front line, the hill witnessed some of the most intense battles of the war. It lies there today looking much as it did a hundred years ago: a mess of rusted barbed wire, shell holes full of water, trees shattered by artillery fire, and a system of mud-filled trenches and tunnels.

Called "Hill 62" on military maps (a reference to its elevation), it was known as Sanctuary Wood by the tens of thousands who lived and died there. The name was given in the early days of the war, when the heavy woodland provided perfect cover for respite from German guns, and a place to treat the wounded. Within months though, the constant artillery bombardments turned the wood into a devastated nightmarish landscape.

Sanctuary Wood now operates as a memorial and museum. Climbing down into the ruins of the original trenches, it is a rare opportunity to physically understand the daily horrors of life on the Western Front. The preserved farm house is filled with the rusted artifacts Shier found on his property: rifles encrusted with mud, German steel helmets riddled with bullet holes, and a collection of period stereoscope photographs of the battlefield.

Walking through the farmhouse into the back garden, past rolls of barbed wire and an alarming stockpile of German artillery shells, a wooden sign post indicates the way to the “British Front Line.” Just down the road from the museum and trenches is Sanctuary Wood Cemetery, the site of just over 600 buried soldiers.

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Every picture tells a story

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Via the Well That Sucks subreddit.
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HarlandCorbin
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Almost looks like a dog silhouette.

Chachapoyas.

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The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has put out a press release summarized in the subhead thus: “DNA analysis of present-day populations in the Chachapoyas region of Peru indicates that the original inhabitants were not uprooted en masse by the Inca Empire’s expansion into this area hundreds of years ago.” As you can see, its primary focus is genetics, but it winds up discussing language:

Paul Heggarty, a linguist and senior author of the study, also of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, was first motivated to launch this project after unexpected results from a linguistic fieldwork trip to Chachapoyas. He was able to find a few remaining elderly speakers of an indigenous language that most assumed was already extinct in this region. “Quechua is one of our most direct living links to the people of the New World before Columbus. It still has millions of speakers, more than any other language family of the Americas – but not in Chachapoyas anymore. There are only a dozen or so fluent speakers now, in a few remote villages, so we need to act fast if we’re to work out its real origins here.”

The Chachapoyas form of Quechua has usually been classified as most closely related to the Quechua spoken in Ecuador, but the new DNA results show no close connections between the Quechua-speakers in these two areas. “Linguists need to rethink their traditional view of the family tree of Quechua languages, and the history of how they spread through the Andes,” notes Heggarty. “It seems that Quechua reached Chachapoyas without any big movement of people. This also doesn’t fit with the idea that the Incas forced out the Chachapoyas population wholesale.”

Jairo Valqui, another linguist co-author from the National University of San Marcos in Lima, adds a further perspective on an even earlier language layer. “Once Quechua and Spanish arrived, the local Chachapoyas languages died out. Recovering anything from them is a real puzzle and a challenge for linguists. They left very few traces, but there are some characteristic combinations of sounds, for example, that still survive in people’s surnames and in local placenames, like Kuelap itself.”

Valqui, himself a Chachapoyano, also makes a point of taking these genetic results back to the local population. “For Peruvian society today, this matters. There’s long been an appreciation of the Incas, but often at the cost of sidelining everything else in the archaeological record across Peru, and the diversity in our linguistic and genetic heritage too. As these latest findings remind us: Peru is not just Machu Picchu, and its indigenous people were not just the Incas.”

Thanks, Trevor!

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