Lost in time, found in PMB

2008-10-06 00:00

We met in the Natal Museum 30 years ago, never imagining that we were anything other than colleagues. Iris was head of the education department and I was a research assistant in the archaeology department. I remember in my first week Iris Bornman coming into the workroom and introducing herself. I appreciated that. We have both retired in the past 10 years and have kept in contact.

I have been tracing my family tree extensively since I retired 10 years ago. I also have a 1965 photograph of my chromosome pairs. So I felt it would be interesting to know my genetic ancestry. Then in October 2007, I jumped at the opportunity to have my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sampled for a special project hosted by the local university. I was accepted, the sample was taken. The wait for the results was long. They came out in March 2008. I was delighted to learn that I belonged to the Haplagroup U2, and that this group was established about 50 000 years ago in eastern Europe. Brian Sykes in his book The Seven Daughters of Eve suggests this was in today’s Greece, and he even romanticises that the clan lived in a cave above a gorge near Mount Parnassus.

Iris was very excited about this story. She read the book. She wrote to the lab and asked if she could have her mtDNA done. Her sampling equipment arrived by post and I helped her swab the inside of her cheeks. She deposited the money and couriered the sample to the lab in Johannesburg. We would wait four months for a result.

Meanwhile, I searched back in my family genealogy beyond Christiana Gertruida Scheepers and her 1820 British settler husband Edward Wainwright. Over several weeks I paged backwards through several genealogies. I found that my first South African maternal ancestor was Elizabeth Malherbe, daughter of French settlers Maria Grillion and Gideon Malherbe who had arrived, independently, in 1688 in the Cape. I was thrilled, but wondered if eight generations back was not a bit too close. After all 320 years is only a fraction of 50 000 years.

Much to our surprise Iris’s result came back after six weeks. There was great excitement. She was Haplagroup U2e and there were four South Africans on the database that matched her mtDNA. We compared the variations in our results and they seemed almost identical. We wondered why I was only U2 while she was U2e. We then searched for Iris’s maternal genealogy using De Villiers and Pama’s Genealogies of Old South African Families as well as South African Genealogies published by the Genealogical Institute of South Africa. The first suggestion that we were related came when we found that we both had the surname Cordier in our female line. Mine was Suzanna and Iris’s was Martha Maria. These Cordiers were sisters and the daughters of Elizabeth Malherbe who had married Phillipus Cordier. Our common South African ancestor Elizabeth Malherbe was born in 1697 and died in 1783. We were delighted and terribly excited.

To make sure that we were related, Iris wrote to the laboratory. She told the lab that we had compared results and had found a common maternal great-x-six grandmother Elizabeth Malherbe. Iris asked if I wasn’t also U2e and perhaps one of the South Africans who completely matched her maternal DNA. The next day there was a reply. The lab had looked at my result and found that I was indeed U2e but this level of analysis had not been reported to me. The e-mail also informed us that we were related.

My direct South African maternal line goes back eight generations. These women lived in the Cape and the Eastern Cape. My mother came to Durban in 1931 to train as a nurse and she stayed. Iris’s maternal line also goes back eight generations and these women lived in the Cape, the Free State and the Transvaal before settling in Kenya in 1911.

Durban is my birthplace and although I lived overseas for a few years, I have not lived anywhere in South Africa other than in KwaZulu-Natal. Iris was born in Kenya, the daughter of South African settlers. She came to South Africa with her parents in 1962. She lived in Durban from 1962 until she came to Pietermaritzburg in 1973. I came to Pietermaritzburg five years later. We met when I joined the Natal Museum in 1978.

Iris is not only an ex-colleague from the Natal Museum and a friend, but after 30 years we have found that we are seventh cousins as well. We are both celebrating this distant relationship and amazing story that had been lost in time but was found in Pietermaritzburg.. VAL WARD Val Ward is passionate about digging up, and writing about, the past. She is a trained medical technologist, archaeological assistant and family historian. For accuracy she has written her own death notice for the Master of the Supreme Court. Only the date and place have to be filled in.

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