Ancestral Journeys

by Will Katerberg

My blood is about 2.5 percent Neanderthal and 1.8 percent Denisovan. My colleagues and wife say they’re not surprised. The evidence indicates, however, that all non-Africans are about 2 percent Neanderthal and just under 2 percent Denisovan. These discoveries are fascinating stories, and they have been a challenge for scientists and theologians. They’re also very personal.

Heat Map for Maternal Line Haplogroup T1

The arrows on the map above represent the migratory paths of successive groups that eventually coalesced to form a branch of my maternal family tree. It starts with my oldest female ancestor, going forward to more recent times, showing at each step where my genetic ancestors migrated.

On my mother’s side, my maternal ancestors had migrated out of Africa by about 55,000 years ago and lived in West Asia. My father’s side of the family made a similar journey about 65,000 years ago, my paternal ancestors leaving the Rift Valley in East Africa, probably crossing at the southern end of the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula.

Those ancient Katerbergs seem to have migrated west from a refuge near the Balkans across Europe about 20,000 years ago, when the last glacial maximum ended. My ancestors on my mother side of the family, the ancient Visschers, arrived in Europe from West Asia sometime later, probably traveling into Eastern Europe and then Western Europe.

Heat Map for Paternal Line Haplogroup M253

The migratory paths of successive groups that eventually coalesced to form a branch of my paternal family tree.

My story of ancestral journeys continues into the present. My mother’s family migrated from the Netherlands to Canada in the late 1940s, my father’s family in the mid 1950s, both looking for farmland for their sons. One of my aunts gave me digital copies of some documents related to my mother’s family’s immigration experience. This added recent sources to the ancient evidence I received from DNA tests.

More recent and ancient patterns in my DNA indicate that my genetic ancestry is found in a high percentage in northern Europe, about 45 percent. This likely points back to early hunter-gatherers Europe. I also share a significant component of DNA with people from the Mediterranean region, about 35 percent. Finally I have a notable portion of shared DNA with people from India and Central Asia, about 18 percent.

More specifically, the two closest reference populations for me, where my DNA looks most similar, are Danish and German. That evidence fits with what my father has told me about his family’s background. The Katerbergs migrated to the Netherlands from Germany in the 18th century, if I remember right. In the more distant past they migrated from Denmark to Germany, perhaps during the Thirty Years War of early to mid 1600s.

I did these DNA tests, and traced my ancestry back to the earliest humans who came out of Africa about 100,000 years ago, through the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project. The story I’ve recounted here will continue to evolve as more people participate in the genographic project and National Geographic gets new information that allows them to chart my family’s journey more precisely. I can keep going back to the website for updates.

My motivation was partly personal, as a matter of simple curiosity. I also took the test because I am teaching a section of my department’s core course on world history before 1500 (History 151) in the spring of 2015.

early human migrationThe course starts with our early human ancestors, the emergence of our own species, and their migration out of Africa and around the world by about 13,000 years ago. It’s a fascinating story for some students and disconcerting for others, even stressful, because of the religious questions it raises about biblical accounts of human origins. My hope is that, whatever their view of religion, science, and evolution, seeing the story of my ancestors will remind them that this evolutionary history is not an impersonal matter of academic research or intellectual controversy but part of our personal stories.

Our stories, even our creation stories, are not only about cosmic matters, or even familiar human history on a grand scale. They’re also as ordinary as ordinary gets, tracing back our family lines, from mother to mother, father to father, through the generations, thousands of them. The story told here is my family heritage, not mere fodder for debates between advocates of science vs. advocates of religious traditions.


My grather father, Frank VIsscher, and his family in 1949. My mother is in the second row on the left.

The genotype project of National Geographic suggests that even the results of technical scientific scholarship can be personal and mythic. The science can trace back my ancestry through mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes and Haplogroups. But I find genuine truth in imagining ancient Katerbergs and Visschers traveling from Africa to West Asia, and into Europe, and from there to North America six and seven decades ago. The first among them were hunter-gatherers. They eventually became farmers, like my grandfathers who migrated to Canada with their families looking for land for their sons.

My students and I will not ignore cosmic questions in History 151 next February, nor the relationship between religion, science, and critical history. They will have opportunities to explore these issues and come to their own conclusions about them. But it’s useful for us to set aside big questions,  for a time, so we don’t forget to notice generation upon generation of our unnamed ancestors on their journeys.

This post is part of a series on Critical History and Sacred Tradition.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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The Christian Historian, the Bible, and “Secular” History

Part 3 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.
Papyrus page with ancient Greek text from the Gospel of Luke

Papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of Luke

For me as a Christian believer as well as a historian, the Bible represents a bit of a conundrum. While it is relatively easy to see that the beginning chapters of Genesis and the concluding chapters of Revelation are “poetic” or “theological” or “prophetic” rather than “historical” in the modern sense, other portions of the Bible clearly resemble history in the modern sense, i.e., they purport to tell the story in the most factually truthful way. The most obvious candidates are the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Book of Acts. Luke refers explicitly to a remarkably modern-sounding methodology of evidence gathering, but all of them present events with a matter-of-factness that would be utterly compelling to modern historians except for one thing: they depict supernatural beings and circumstances such as angels, the virgin birth, miraculous healings, the resurrection, etc. Were it not for these “incredible” claims, I think it’s fair to say that these writings would be regarded by even secular scholars as some of the most reliable historical sources we have from the first century A.D.

It appears to me that the contentious issue is not the quality of the sources but the historians’ philosophical assumptions which dictate their answer to the question: “Do supernatural events ever happen?” The only serious reason to deny the authenticity of the gospel accounts is an a priori commitment to naturalism and a rejection of supernaturalism. To be fair, that is not an unreasonable objection. One has only to think how you or I would react if someone—maybe even several people—came to us with the excited report that someone had just risen from the dead or if a woman who was obviously pregnant insisted that she was still a virgin. Moreover, the gospels wed these inherently implausible supernatural accounts to an existential call for a life-changing commitment to Jesus, whose resurrection proves that he is lord of heaven and earth. So are these accounts “historical”? As a Christian and a historian, I prefer to say that they are true rather than historical because it requires Spirit-breathed faith to believe them and because their purpose is not merely to convey information but to inspire a life changing commitment to Christ.

Thus, as I understand it, to work as a Christian historian means to remain within the limits of the rules of logic and evidence that are understood by other historians, including nonreligious ones, as the norms of historical work. That means that I make no claim to special revelation in the interpretation of specific events. Nor do I invoke God or supernatural influences as direct causal factors in history. Doing so would not merely invalidate my work as “history,” it would also, I believe, represent a presumptuous claim bordering on blasphemy.

16th century Aztec illustration depicting a god wearing a human skin.

A 16th-century Aztec illustration of Xipe Totec, a life-death-rebirth deity in Aztec mythology and religion

On the other hand I also think that belief in God must be regarded as a motive in human affairs every bit as basic as self-preservation or economic interest or group loyalty or any other primary source of human behavior. Religious loyalty can certainly co-exist with other motivations and at times may serve as a mere cover for other motives, but it is not inherently insincere any more than other motives may at times be. History gives us too many examples of people who remained loyal to their religious convictions in the face of ostracism, seizure of goods, and even death to deny the power of religion as a motive for action. Of course, history also gives us many examples of people, including Christians, who remained loyal to their religion to the point of ostracizing others, seizing their goods, and killing them, sometimes in gruesome ways, to show God how much they loved him and hated sinners. My point is simply that while I do not speak of God as a direct participant in the historical process, I can certainly speak of Christians, and Muslims and Buddhists and Jews and Aztecs, as people who acted in certain ways because they were convinced that God or the gods wanted them to do so.

At this stage, I imagine that some readers are left wondering whether my perspective on history is different from any other historian’s perspective, secular or otherwise. If it ends up looking exactly the same as any “reasonable” historian’s, does it mean anything at all to be a Christian historian? That’s a good question. My answer is to turn the question around: why do non-Christian historians so often sound like Christian historians? They often use terms such as “courageous” or “unjust” or “cruel” without ever recognizing that such words represent moral judgments that a purely secular understanding of humanity and the material universe cannot justify.

Moreover the purpose for which a Christian historian does her work is to glorify God and to edify readers—Christians and others—by telling truthful stories about the past that can help them to become wiser, more compassionate, more committed to doing justice, etc. It is not just about amassing information with no concern about the use to which it’s put—history for history’s sake. To be fair, I don’t think most secular historians would say that they are just amassing information either but, once again, Christians have a more defensible reason for wanting people to learn from the past—and to grow in virtue—than secular historians do. Secular historians may have similar aims: Marxist historians want their readers to become aware of economic injustice, Feminist historians want their readers to become aware of gender bias, both hope that their readers will be moved to action; but I don’t think most of them realize that such purposes imply an understanding about the moral character of the cosmos that a purely secular starting point cannot justify. If there is no god/creator who infused the world with goodness and who hates evil, how can a historian call on her readers to agree with her particular moral vision of justice or whatever? Without the moral context that Christian faith provides, history is just some author’s account for each reader to do with (or not do with) whatever they wish and a historian’s purpose does not rise much above the desire to amuse himself and others or perhaps provide ammunition for arbitrarily chosen sides in ephemeral political battles.

This post is the third in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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The Half Has Never Been Told

by Jim Bratt.

From time to time I like to use this blog to air out some conversation, or combat, going on inside the guild of American historians. The arguments never stop, with the happy consequence that we members of the profession are kept in work. But sometimes things get tiresome. That’s the case with the hubbub you might have overheard recently over the revision of the AP U.S. History course; all that shouting’s largely a rehash of the big debate in the late ‘90s over national U.S. history standards in the schools.

Cover of the book Half Has Never Been Told by Edward BaptistNot so with the sharp but brief exchange occasioned last week by The Economist’s review of Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, just out from Basic Books. The review accused Baptist of miscalculation and bias for his apparently overlooking the remarkable gains in productivity in U. S. cotton production over the first half of the nineteenth century. Surely Southern masters must have created some positive incentives, improved their care and treatment of their laborers, to achieve such wonders. By ignoring this evidence and more like it, the anonymous reviewer concluded, Baptist demonstrated that “he has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

The review kicked up such a fury of ridicule that within a day the magazine retracted it. The critics were right, said The Economist; “slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published” intimations to the contrary “and apologise for having done so.”

But slavery being evil was not the issue, said Baptist’s rejoinder; “I’d like to think we all agree on that.” His deeper and broader point is to call into question The Economist’s, and many others’, fundamental and driving conviction that market mechanisms and market solutions are always best. What if slavery was profitable? What if it was not the retrograde system that abolitionists, themselves frequently enthusiasts of free-labor capitalism, insisted it had to be; nor the noblesse oblige neo-feudalism that the slaveholders, for their part, liked to say they had built. What if slave-labor cotton production was not the antithesis but the quintessence of capitalism, not only highly profitable but entirely profit driven—and driving much of the century’s remarkable growth of the American economy in the process? This, Baptist concludes, “creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?”

Black and white photograph of African Americans working in the cotton field

African American cotton pickers in Oklahoma, c. 1897-98.

The Half Has Not Been Told calls into question the fundamental narrative of American history; it moves slavery from its customary place to dead center. (If you don’t have time for the whole book, read the excerpt posted at Salon.) That is, slavery is not marginal; it’s not the exception that proves the rule of liberty; it’s not an embarrassing contradiction to the nation’s principles that we’ve come to regret. It’s not locked up in the colonial past, unaccountably continuing to scratch out an existence for a few decades as freedom and prosperity boom across the pages of time. Quite the contrary. From a relatively scraggly institution fixed on worn-out soil along the Atlantic seaboard, slavery after Independence experienced a huge resurgence in scale, importance, and wealth-creation at the heart of the most important commodity production in the world—cotton. Our usual sighs of relief at the outlawing of the international slave trade in 1807 now must give way to a true and accurate fathoming of the scale of the internal slave trade that replaced it—a million people shipped from the Atlantic seaboard into the deep interior of the South, climaxing at the Mississippi Delta and its production of a wealthy elite unparalleled in all of American history. As for the rising productivity of this, antebellum America’s largest and most lucrative industry, Baptist consults hundreds of slave narratives to re-capture the speed-up regime that was first innovated on the cotton plantation before being transplanted to Northern cities a half century later. Masters exacted higher performance not by kindness but by the lash. Again, slavery was American capitalism in concentrated form, and fueled the rest of it across the nation.

No hand-washing for the North, then, nor for us today. Some abolitionists refused to wear cotton back in the day because they saw it soaked with African American blood. That blood is mixed in the foundations of our entire industrial complex, and—the profits therefrom having been passed along into the postindustrial age—it remains at the bottom of our economy today. These profits were extracted by law and lash from the ancestors of some of our fellow citizens. A disproportionate share of those citizens are poor, incarcerated, unemployed, in poorer health, suffering shorter life-spans. This lesson of history is clear.

God is not mocked—Lincoln said it in his epochal Second Inaugural, and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown, preached it again in the 1960s. Ta-Nehisi Coates proclaimed it again in The Atlantic this past summer. God is not mocked, and we will not be healed and well, nor genuinely prosper as a nation, until we figure out some way to pay back the debt and the damage that Edward Baptist so powerfully explains in this book. It’s the other half that has to be told.


This post originally appeared on September 13, 2014 in The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

Jim Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. Jim also blogs regularly for The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

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