MY INNER CAVEMAN
IN LATE 2012 I met a remarkable and surprising woman. Her name was Lily Brett. She is a former rock and roll journalist turned author. She’d just written a thinly disguised autobiography called Lola Bensky. It’s set in 1967 and about a young Jewish Australian rock reporter, who, like the author, has Auschwitz survivor parents. Lola, like Lily, also goes to Europe and interviews the world’s biggest rock stars: Hendrix, Jagger, Joplin, Morrison etc.
But the surprise on meeting Lily Brett was as a result of a play on words. As we shook hands I said I was looking forward to saying: “I’m Ian Henschke. My guest is Lily Brett who’s written a book called Lola Bensky.” She laughed and held on to my hand and said “Henschke is the Yiddish word for glove.” I told her I had never heard this before. “Yes,” she said, “Henschke is a good Yiddish name.”
Now for someone who’s been told all his life he is descended from pioneering Lutheran stock it was quite a shock. My full name is Ian Martin Henschke. The Martin was chosen by my grandfather who wanted it to be a reminder of the great protestant reformer Martin Luther and also a reminder of his father who was Martin. Martin’s father was also Johan Martin, a man who migrated here with his brother in 1841. We were told they did this to avoid persecution because of their unbending faith.
I then discovered there are Henschkes who perished in Auschwitz. The only surviving members of that family lived in Israel. One escaped in 1932 and his cousin escaped in 1936. His name was Martin Henschke.
When I met Professor Alan Cooper from the Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide I asked if there was a way you could have your DNA tested for Jewish ancestry. He recommended National Geographic Geno 2.0. So far more than 600,000 people have paid around $150 to have a test kit sent to them. They’ve swabbed their cheeks, sent off specimens and a few weeks later they’ve got a story that goes back not hundreds but more than a hundred thousand years.
For me, the remarkable finding wasn’t just the appearance of the Jewish Ashkenazi Levite lineage on my paternal DNA and a similar link on my maternal line, it was the whole story of my ancestry going back 3000 generations to an ancestor in Africa linked to the Masai. I have Asian ancestry as well. There is a gene that shows I’m linked to the Hmong people of the lower Himalayas. But the real surprise were the ancient ancestors who are actually different human species! I am part Neanderthal and part Denisovan. And quite a sizeable part too. A bit over one twentieth of me is from these two human-like creatures.
I can now sing “I’m a Neanderthal Man” and really mean it! But seriously, he was a creature who we thought died out but now know co-existed with Homo sapiens and interbred. Neanderthals died out completely in Europe and the Middle East about 30,000 years ago.
My DNA also contains Denisovan, a recently discovered hominoid that once lived in Asia. Just six years ago paleoanthropologists were excavating a cave in Russia and uncovered the remains of an adult and a young girl who lived 40,000 years ago. They were able to extract enough usable DNA to show this hominoid was genetically different from us to be classed as a separate species.
From a chance remark about the meaning of my name I’ve now gone on a journey in time and discovered the illogicality of racism. If I go far enough back, I am an African. I also have ancestors from Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Northern Europe and Western Europe. I have ancestors who link me to the hominoid creatures that split away from a common ape related ancestor even further back.
When you do this DNA test you realise how much we have in common. We are all in the family of humankind. It’s made me realise my Barossa pioneering ancestors may well have been Jews who were persecuted and so converted to Lutheranism and then escaped as religious refugees to South Australia. A century later those that didn’t convert were gassed and those that weren’t escaped to Israel. We are blessed to live here in peace. Let’s keep it that way. Hear Ian Henschke on ABC radio 891 weekdays from 9am-11am or follow him on Twitter @IanHenschke