Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death (and rebirth) in Venice

Right after President Berkey left Venice after his momentous visit, the Venice Project Center was at the center of a worldwide media whirlwind connected to an initiative entitled "The Funeral of Venice".
Through our friends in the 40xVenezia, we connected with venessia.com, yet another grassroots organization (heretofore unbeknown to me) that is actively working to make a difference in Venice, through self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek, disruptive activities, such as this mock funeral to mourn the death of Venice, marking the fact that the city's population has dipped below the 60,000 mark, continuing its steep descent into oblivion from its peak around 175,000 after WWII.  Despite its macabre tone, the event was intended more as a wake-up call than a last rite.  In fact, on this occasion, venessiapuntocom unveiled a parallel initiative to gather signatures from "potential Venetians" who aspire to live in our city and would gladly move to Venice if they could.
After hearing of our project on the Origins of Venice, which - among other things - entails collecting DNA samples from individuals from the Triveneto area in the Northeast of Italy, to contribute to a National Geographic worldwide research project called The Genographic Project, the venessianipuntocom offered us the opportunity to join in the event to help expedite our data collection, whose goals were in line with the theme of death/rebirth that permeated the culminating performance by comic actor Cesare Colonnese during the funeral oration. Our participation became controversial when some misinformed (or perhaps disingenuous) national and local commentators interpreted our study as an attempt to identify "true Venetians" as part of some sort of eugenic plot to purify our race and possibly even reproduce ourselves by cloning our collected DNA...  hard to believe indeed...
I was forced to issue a clarification on the local Gazzettino newspaper to explain that the tests were simply a regional contribution of 350 samples to an worldwide genealogical study (with over 100,000 samples) aimed at producing an atlas of the ancient genetic pathways - evinced from haplogroups based on statistical haplotypes - of the original human migrations across the continents over 10,000 years ago, long before the Venetian republic even existed.  Luckily, on the day of the event, the students and I were all interviewed by a number of TV networks and members of the press, which by and large corrected the misconceived notions that were broadcast beforehand.

The high density of ideal candidates for our tests (unrelated adult males with both maternal and paternal grandparents from the Northeast of Italy) who could volunteer for the test, and the publicity received by our effort enabled us to collect 40 DNA swabs in just a couple of hours, while we had only collected a total of 80 since we started our project exactly a year ago.  On the wake of the event, we managed to quickly collect several more samples, which are being shipped to Barcelona to join last year's set, which has now crossed the threshold of 100 needed to begin the analyses, so that all past participants will be able to finally review, using their secret codes, their personal ascendants in the big haplofamilies of our ancestors.
Like their predecessors, this year's team is traveling to Barcelona to meet Dr. Comas at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
As we get closer to completing our initial 350 samples, the students will be discussing a joint research effort between the WPI Venice Project Center and the experts at the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva to confirm/refute the various hypotheses concerning the origins of the ancient Veneti, by duplicating a prior study in the ancient Phoenicians.  There are two main theories regarding the Veneti’s origins:
  1. The Paphlagonian theory, which places their origins in Northern Turkey, with subsequent migrations up the Balcans and into today’s Veneto region in NE Italy.
  2. The Lusatian theory, which places their origins in central Europe (after a migration from the East) settling into modern-day Lusatia, a region at the intersection between Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany (East Germany).
There are also well-known historical mentions of the Veneti (possibly an unrelated Celtic people) in other parts of Europe, especially in Britanny (Vannes).
We hope that The Genographic Project and the National Geographic Society will sponsor this follow up study which, while it won't contribute to the rebirth of today's city of Venice, should shed some light on the long-dead ancestors of the inhabitants of the lagoons.

Orate pro nobis
("O meio do go?")
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