04 March 2013
ByAppeared in BioNews 695
BBC1, 20-21 February 2013
Presented by Eddie Izzard
If asked to describe Eddie Izzard, your reply may include the words actor, comedian, transvestite and marathon runner. Well, now you can add 'part Neanderthal' to the list.
'Meet the Izzards' is an exploration of Eddie Izzard's ancestry in which he uses his own DNA to retrace the migration of his predecessors out of Africa and into Europe - a journey that reveals many things about his heritage, including the fact that he is 2.8 percent Neanderthal.
'I've always been fascinated by genetics and the fact that it can bring my history right here', Izzard says.
Many of you will be familiar with the series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' in which celebrities are taken on a quest into their family history. Now, Izzard has documented a similar exploration, only in his case the journey is guided by his DNA, which was not-so-elegantly collected in the form of a spit sample.
Recent advances in genetic techniques and continually-expanding databases, allowed the makers of the show to trace much further back than is possible through written records, to some 200,000 years ago. Analysis of Izzard's DNA was done by Dr Jim Wilson of the University of Edinburgh, UK, who compared it against DNA samples collected from hundreds of thousands of individuals all over the world.
Dr Wilson explains how DNA, which is passed on as almost exact copies from generation to generation, can sometimes become altered, creating 'new markers'. When two people share a marker, this suggests a common ancestor at some point in their past - a rationale used by Dr Wilson to uncover Izzard's ancestral story.
Izzard follows the lineage of both his mother and father; a journey leading him to his most distant human ancestors in Namibia in the south of Africa. Here he briefly lives the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, picking berries and starting a fire with sticks. Moving north, Izzard visits Djibouti, which is thought to be the site of the first exodus of modern humans out of Africa 60,000 years ago.
The story then tracks his ancestors as they moved through Israel and Europe. On his mother's side he goes in search of the origin of his blue eyes which emerged in Turkey, and learns how tremendously important the development of agriculture was for survival as humans spread through diverse environments. He also visits Scandinavia, following a marker which suggests his ancestors may have been Vikings here as little as 2000 years ago.
Turning to his father's side, Dr Wilson reveals to Izzard that his genome contains 2.8 percent Neanderthal DNA. This comes at a time when scientists have only recently found strong evidence to show that humans and Neanderthals interbred at all. This fascinating discovery merited much more than the half-hearted response of 'cool' from Izzard. The journey is brought to a conclusion when Izzard returns to his father's home and recounts all that he has learnt, which again lacked some of the excitement it deserved.
Overall, Izzard doesn't appear naturally gifted at doing TV travelogues, often coming across awkward and lacking dynamic changes in emotion. He makes up for this with his occasional one-liners and comic twists. For example; his desire not to be tarnished with the reputation of raping and pillaging commonly associated with Vikings, but rather hoping that his particular ancestors took up a non-violent role, perhaps as accountants who merely counted swords.
'Meet the Izzards', claimed by the makers to mark the first time someone in the UK has traced their genealogy in this way, will be more captivating for those who have a keen interest in genetics and ancestry. With the advent of worldwide genome databases and the ever-nearing possibility of sequencing an entire individual's genome for just $1000, it may not be long before we too can journey through our ancestry in this way. Although after spending $1000 on DNA sequencing, many of us will have to do this from the comfort of our living rooms.