In Search For My Ancestors: Part 1

My brother wearing a traditional Javanese clothing for men consisting of “beskap” (the shirt), “jarik” (the batik sarong), “blangkon” (the headdress) and “kris” (the dagger), at our cousin´s wedding

The “test-your-DNA” and “trace-your-ancestry” fad has been going strong for years now. Last year I could not resist succumbing to it. I have always been interested in theories of how our species migrated throughout the years anyway, so I thought why not. It is said that our species is 200,000 years old and had been nomadic hunter-gatherers up to as late as 10,000-15,000 years ago when agriculture was developed. Where to and how have we journeyed during those years? I have always been intrigued by how humans have reached and survived on even the tiniest landmass they could find.

Long story short, from what I know my family largely hails from the island of Java (like most Indonesians do). It’s not exactly a small landmass, no. In contrary, it is (give or take) 140,000 sq km of land providing life for 140ish million people.

The old folks from my mother’s side comes from the central part of Java, the Yogyakarta area to be exact. Now, my father’s side of the family originally comes from West and East Java. So what I am is mostly Javanese, ethnically.

My mother was born into a family of teachers/educators and grew up in Jakarta. My father though, while his ethnic origin is a mix of Sundanese and Javanese, has spent chunks of his life in different parts of Indonesia. He was born in the city of Makassar in the island of Sulawesi, where his dad, who worked in the Navy, was stationed. A part of my father´s youth was spent there before his family moved to the port city of Surabaya in East Java, and later Jakarta. My parents met there while both working at a bank. Jakarta a.k.a the “Big Durian”, a metropolitan comprising of 12 millions inhabitants (roughly speaking), the capital city (or soon-to-be-ex-capital city) of the 17,000 islands collectively known as Indonesia. In Jakarta I was born and partly grew up. So, it is maybe safer to say that I am the descendent of Javanese people, or for the lack of a better description, simply (or not so simply) “a city kid with a Javanese heritage, who together with 200+ million others with similar and varied heritage inhabit(ed) a territory called Indonesia”.

My family and I moved to Sweden when I was a teenager. I spent my formative teenage years up to now mainly in Sweden, with a year stint of studying in Poland. It was during this time that I was introduced to a notion of having to belong to a certain group, the idea that a majority of us have a tendency to identify ourselves with certain ethnic and/or cultural groups and/or nationalities.

Moreover, I had gained an awareness of how some countries are relatively homogenous in terms of varieties of ethnic groups and the number of languages spoken compared to what I had been exposed to. Therefore, a connection between a person’s physical characteristics, what his/her name is and the ethnic group that he/she belongs to and/or the person´s country of origin is often assumed. This was a rather new concept for me at the time, especially because Javanese people do not usually inherit a family name and I had previously been in touch with people from different ethnic groups and with varied looks, skin complexions and even religions my whole life, whom all identified as Indonesians.

I would be lying, however, if I say that a multiethnic country such as Indonesia is free from conflicts which arise from differences. The country had (or still has) been riddled with such adversities, but they never had a huge impact on my daily life nor my life trajectory. At least that was the Indonesia that I grew up in, from the memory of a 26 year old who left the country when she was 15. And memories are simply subjective reconstructions of reality, which may leave out undesirable parts. It was only recently that I wondered if my ethnic background had a role in shielding my life from some negative effects of the aforementioned conflicts. ”Had I lived a life as a majority prior to moving to another country?”, ”Do I have a tendency to romanticize how united everyone was when my so called own ethnic group had the biggest influence on my country of origin in terms of number?” I thought to myself one day. Among the 300 recognised ethnic groups in Indonesia, Javanese is the largest one.

As much as I dislike putting myself and others in categories (“majority”, “minority”, etc), I couldn´t help to think about them. I began to ask myself ”Had I been oblivious to how life was as a minority back then?” I have to admit that moving to a completely different country has definitely allowed me to have a taste of a life in which my mere casing a.k.a appearance, origin in terms of the geographical location I came from and stereotypes attached to it have often been a topic in a conversation and/or are sometimes used as a barometer for how I function as a human being. It is such a humbling life lesson that I otherwise would have not been enriched by, had I stayed and grown older in the city where I was born.

There was a period in my life when I immediately had this newfound need of belonging to a certain group, just because some people I encountered at the time put emphasis on this need. One example of such emphasis was when I received the question:

Where are you really from?

A budding interest in looking deeper into my ethnic origin, my “Javaneseness”, was triggered in me. It was an interest that I had never followed suit before for some reasons, namely:

  1. There were some life adjustments that I had to make in this new country that I just moved to
  2. I saw it as a complicated issue to tackle as a teenager (heritage, what? origin, eh?)

It was not until years later that I noticed that this interest of mine was growing bigger. This time, it was not there to serve its initial purpose as a confirmation that I really belonged to a certain group. This interest had transformed itself into a quest to understand the human origin and the movements of my human ancestors.

As a science enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out about genetic ancestry testing. What better way to find out about my ancestry if not through my DNA? So, I ordered a DNA-kit consisting of a tube and an instruction on how I should collect my DNA sample, which was through my saliva. I spat into the tube, closed the lid, packed it up and woosh it went into a post office mailbox and then to a lab in Ireland. I waited for a whole month before my result came back.

Here is the breakdown of my ancestry:

”Say what now?” this was my initial reaction. And then came the word ”interesting”. I had never even set foot in those countries before, yet I share some DNA with those countries´ natives!

Based on this result I drew some preliminary conclusions and thoughts:

  1. Eeermm, so I am not a Javanese?
  2. Javanese might not be an ethnic group since every Javanese is a mix of other ethnicities. What is ethnic group anyway?
  3. There might not be any correlation between ethnic groups and today’s countries. Some ethnic groups are only most commonly found in the geographical locations where what we call countries now stand.
  4. While DNA companies have been very helpful in aiding me and many other people for the search of our ancestors, they should improve their database since it could be the case that genetic markers specific to certain (ethnic) groups still remain undocumented.
  5. How do ethnicity, culture and nationality intertwine? What is the nature of the relationship between these three?
  6. While varieties in looks, cultures, names, nationalities, languages, exist, we are all Homo sapiens at the end of the day.

Apparently, I was not the only one in my family who took an interest in DNA ancestry. My mother sent in her own saliva sample a couple of months before I sent mine. Soon after, my brother followed. Thankfully, my brother and I got similar results, otherwise my mother would have some explaining to do 🙂 . When compared to my mother´s result, ours showed similarities, only a slight difference in the percentages on each ancestral group, a pattern which I also observed when comparing my brother´s ancestral data and mine . As I was, they too, were thrilled by their respective result.

This was the start of our long-term plan of retracing our ancestors´ steps.

A couple of months after the three of us got our DNA test results, I found myself sitting on a wooden boat near the Unicorn Island in the South of Vietnam with my mother, brother and a small group of fellow tourists, while drinking some fresh coconut water and staring daydreamingly into Mekong´s muddy water. ”My ancestors might have journeyed this very same river”, I thought to myself.

And the search for my ancestors continue…

Lulu Riyanti

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