Category: History

Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating interview with Daniel Sharfstein about his book, “The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.” His book shows just how fluid the idea of race could be, even in the American South, which was pretty rigid about the concept, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s lots of interesting discourse here, so you should check it out, but here are a couple of things worth quoting:

Q: You note that an early 18th-century governor of South Carolina granted the Gibsons, who clearly had African-American ancestry, permission to stay in his colony because “they are not Negroes nor Slaves.” How did the governor reach such a nebulous conclusion?

Sharfstein: It shows how fluid understandings of race can be. The Gibsons were descended from some of the first free people of color in Virginia, and like many people of color in the early 18th century they left Virginia and moved to North Carolina and then to South Carolina, where there was more available land and the conditions of the frontier made it friendlier to people of color. But when they arrived in South Carolina there was a lot of anxiety about the presence of this large mixed-race family. And it seems that the governor determined that they were skilled tradesmen, that they had owned land in North Carolina and in Virginia and—I think most important—that they owned slaves. So wealth and privilege trumped race. What really mattered is that the Gibsons were planters.

Q: One of your subjects, Stephen Wall, crossed from black to white to black to white again, in the early 20th century. How common was that crossing back and forth?

Sharfstein: My sense is that this happened fairly often. There were many stories of people who, for example, were white at work and black at home. There were plenty of examples of people who moved away from their families to become white and for one reason or another decided to come home. Stephen Wall is interesting in part because at work he was always known as African-American, but eventually, at home everyone thought he was Irish.

Q: As you look at the United States now, would you say the color line is disappearing, or even has disappeared?

Sharfstein: I think the idea that race is blood-borne and grounded in science still has a tremendous amount of power about how we think about ourselves. Even as we understand how much racial categories were really just a function of social pressures and political pressures and economic pressures, we still can easily think about race as a function of swabbing our cheek, looking at our DNA and seeing if we have some percentage of African DNA. I think that race has remained a potent dividing line and political tool, even in what we think of as a post-racial era. What my book really works to do is help us realize just how literally we are all related.

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 during her attempt to become the first female to fly around the world. Flying near Howland Island in the Pacific, communication with her plane was lost. Finally, after an intense search by the U.S. government, she and Noonan were officially pronounced dead  on January 5, 1939. Since then, there has been speculation about whether they actually died in a crash at sea, or survived for some time on a deserted island.

Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937. Image from Discover Magazine.

Two years ago, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found bone fragments on Nikumaroro Island that may be part of Earhart’s finger. However, a dead sea turtle was found nearby, raising the reasonable possibility that the bone fragments also belong to the turtle. Apparently the bone fragments are too small to identify just by looking at them, so researchers want to extract DNA from the bone to compare to Earhart’s. How do we get DNA from her, you may ask? From National Geographic:

The new Earhart DNA project will be headed by Dongya Yang, a genetic archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. Yang will examine Earhart’s letters and attempt to extract DNA from mouth-lining cells that would have been in the saliva she used to seal the envelopes. Mining a trove of more than 400 correspondences between Earhart and various people, the researchers have chosen four letters to family—deemed the most likely to have been written and sealed by Earhart herself—for analysis.

Yang is aiming to gather two kinds of DNA from the letters: mitochondrial DNA, which children inherit from their mothers only, and nuclear DNA, which contains the bulk of a person’s genetic information and is housed in each human cell’s nucleus. If both DNA types can be obtained, the team says it can create a genetic profile of Earhart that is complete enough to positively identify any potential remains.

If the project proceeds smoothly, Yang said, the team could have a genetic profile for Earhart in “a couple months.”

Let’s see what happens…

See our keynote speaker Dr. John Hawks talking about rapid genetic evolution among modern humans (“Rapid evolution: Can mutations explore historic events?”) at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Irish giants and DNA

As reported in the New York Times and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers have successfully extracted DNA from the skeleton of Charles Byrne, who was known during his lifetime (1761-1783) as the “Irish Giant.” Measuring in at a towering 7’7″, he apparently died of the combined effects of tuberculosis and “an excessive love of gin.” His body was purchased soon after his death, after which it was boiled in acid and put on display at a museum in London. Some years later, after the removal of the top of his skull, it was determined that he suffered from a pituitary tumor. The pituitary gland sits at the base of the brain and regulates, among other things, the release of growth hormone. So, Byrne essentially suffered from growth hormone gone haywire.

The skeleton of Charles Byrne (Photo credit: Ronan McCloskey)

What’s interesting (at least for our purposes here) is that DNA analysis discovered that Byrne had a genetic mutation in his AIP gene.  These sorts of mutations are rare: only about 5% of people with pituitary tumors inherited them via a mutated gene. This particular mutation is so rare that when researchers found the same mutation among four families from Northern Ireland, they determined that these families are in fact related to Byrne (they shared a common ancestor 55 to 67 generations ago, or about 1,500 years ago).

The mutation probably occurs in other populations, either through shared ancestry or spontaneous mutation. Cool stuff.


Chahal, H.S., Stals, K., Unterländer, M., Balding, D.J., Thomas, M.G., Kumar, A.V., Besser, M.G., Atkinson, B.A., Morrison, P.J., M.D.; Howlett, Trevor A. M.D.; Levy, Miles J. M.D.; Orme, Steve M. M.D.; Akker, Scott A. M.B., B.S., Ph.D.; Abel, Richard L. Ph.D.; Grossman, A.B., Burger, J., Ellard, S., Korbonits, M. (2011). AIP mutation in pituitary adenomas in the 18th Century and today. New England Journal of Medicine 364: 43-50.