Kenneally TextLucid.  Fascinating.  Intriguing.  Compelling.  This is a book I read late into the night.  Then at the breakfast table and then later in the parked car while waiting to collect the kids.  I feverishly pressed copies onto friends.

But what’s it all about?  Essentially The Invisible History of the Human Race is a quest to discover what is passed down to us.  How do our ancestry, our family and our cultural histories shape us?

The answers are stranger than you might think.

Apart from the obvious genetic traits (and Kenneally manages to make her extensive discussion of DNA and the issues surrounding it absolutely riveting) there is evidence to show that our forebears may also pass down their fears and mistrust.

As a graduate student Nathan Nunn, now a Harvard economist, began to compare different economies in modern Africa, and he found that the countries that lost more people to the slave trade were also the poorest countries today.  How could the slave trade shape economies and affect lives in Africa over a century after it ended?  Nunn discovered that the legacy was passed on not only in the materials and institutions from the past but also in the way people thought about one another… Did the slave trade give rise to a culture of mistrust that was passed down from the slave era even to individuals who live in the same places today?  There are good reasons to believe it might have.

Kenneally tackles her vast topic in an engaging and lively way.  Section One (Ideas About What is Passed Down Are Passed Down) looks at the notion of family history and genealogy.  In this section she explores the many ways genealogists are disparaged by ‘real’ historians.  Kenneally also provides a useful exploration of eugenics, in a chapter called “The Worst Idea in History.”

From there The Invisible History of the Human Race looks into what IS passed down.  The chapter headings provide some hints: Silence; Information; Ideas and Feelings; The Small Grains of History; DNA + Culture. 

As I mentioned earlier, the DNA discussion goes far beyond mere science.  Kenneally brings to life the academic studies that use DNA to trace population movements and the legacy of agricultural innovations (such as the genetic mixture that provides some of us with a tolerance for lactose).  She also explores the modern-day conundrums surrounding DNA records. Who owns our DNA information?  Who should?  It was also interesting to discover that DNA information is, so far, more useful in the aggregate (to tell us about populations) rather than at the individual level.  To what extent is useful, or even desirable, to know that we might be slightly more at risk of this disease, or that one?

Along the way Kenneally examines the genetic legacy of Genghis Khan (1162-1227): murderer and serial rapist.  Scientists estimate that Khan’s Y chromosome is probably carried by sixteen million men today.  Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings was famously demonstrated through analysis of the DNA of the descendants of Hemings’ children.  A swathe of historians were proven wrong.  But Kenneally also reveals that Heming’s eldest son, whose descendants also claim to be related to Jefferson, was in fact fathered by someone else.  The impact on those descendants is poignant.  I was brought up short by another fact demonstrated by the DNA – Sally Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles.  There really is nowt so queer as folk.

Leaving no stone unturned, or gene unexamined, Kenneally also discusses the genetic relationships of people who bear the same last name.  While the singer Tom Jones is unlikely to be related to the African-American actor James Earl Jones (although you never know) it seems that Attenborough is such an uncommon name that some 87 percent are thought to be descended from a single Mr Attenborough.  Even the two you are thinking of now are brothers…

In her introduction Kenneally asks “Why do we care about where, or rather whom, we come from?”  The answer is…well, it’s complex.  You’ll have to read this brilliant book (it was shortlisted for the Stella Prize) and decide for yourself.

Want to know more?

  • Historians are Past Caring posted a terrific review of the book here.
  • A short video of Christine Kenneally talking about her book.
  • For the background story behind the book, try this piece, from The Guardian.


This review is included in the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge