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Eurasia 98 Friday, 5 June, 1998, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
The hard work begins
Portrait of an Ossetian man
An Ossetian volunteer forms an orderly queue
Darius Bazargan reports:

For most visitors Batumi, Georgia is a pleasant Black Sea holiday resort, but for Eurasia 98 it was our first sampling point.

The overall aim of this expedition is to map the genetic history of the Caucasus and Central Asia by taking samples from different ethnic groups, isolating their genetic material in the countries concerned, before final analysis of the DNA in more sophisticated laboratories which currently exist only in the US and Western Europe.

In practice this means taking blood samples from volunteers and working hand in hand with local scientists.

Collaboration is the key

Eurasia 98 team with Dr. Helena Jamarjashvilli sampling in the field
Eurasia 98 team with Dr. Helena Jamarjashvilli sampling in the field
One of the most important points about Eurasia 98's working methods is that the whole project has been conceived as a collaborative effort - it is not simply a case of Western scientists zooming into relatively poor countries and preaching high technology to the grateful locals. Without close co-operation the entire expedition would be untenable.

In this instance, Georgian geneticist Dr Helena Jamarjashvili and Dr Irakli Jorjoladze joined Eurasia 98's scientists, Dr Spencer Wells, Nat Pearson and Dr Ruslan Ruzibakiev.

The Children's Hospital in Batumi was the first collecting point.

We're not from the secret police

Blood samples taken were from the hospital staff all of whom declared themselves to be ethnic Ajarians - south western Georgian Muslims who live near the Turkish border. Ajarians are considered interesting by genetic anthropologists as they may represent the human interface between Turkic and Caucasian populations in the region.

Initially, volunteers were wary of giving blood until they started to understand what the project was about. After that, word soon spread - people were fascinated with the idea that their own blood and genetic make up were effectively a history book as old as mankind itself.

This pattern was repeated time and again. In Q'azbegi, Helena's home town in the mountains of northern Georgia, many of the local people, particularly those with an Ossetian background, were mistrustful at first but once a few had come forward the sampling process became much easier for the team.

It was good to see the barriers breaking down once we were able to explain the nature of Eurasia 98's work and people realised we hadn't been sent in by some sinister secret police force to poison everyone!

Georgian generosity

The mountains of this part of Georgia have an austere beauty, this is an area where the environment, though stunning to look at, is also harsh and unforgiving. People here need friends around them survive, perhaps this is why people here are so hospitable; you never know when you might depend on some neighbourly generosity.

Help yourself: a Georgian lemonade seller
Help yourself: a Georgian lemonade seller
Put another way, once we had made friends, the food and vodka flowed freely.

Our time in Georgia provided blood from the populations of Ajaria, Svans from Tbilisi, Kazbegi Georgians and Ossetians. Almost 150 samples were collected here, pretty good going; Eurasia 98 hopes to gather around 1,500 four months - making it the biggest collecting expedition of its type in this part of the world.

Politics, blood and words

But our team is not only concerned with the nascent genetic side of anthropology. Nat Pearson's is the team's linguist, he is keen to examine the correlation between linguistic and genetic diversity. In other words whether or not the family trees of languages and peoples match; and if they don't, then why not?

In Georgia, for example, there are regular attempts at proving a link between Georgians and the Basques in northern Spain. Advocates of this theory argue that both groups were the original inhabitants of Europe before migratory waves of Indo-Europeans came from the east.

This is a highly contentious issue, often argued with more passion than proof - perhaps due to a sense of solidarity between two sets of fiercely independent mountain peoples. The arguments for and against are both loud and stubborn, but the work of projects like ours may be able to provide some definitive answers in the long run.

Genetic anthropology is still in its infancy and it is capable of being malevolently distorted by people with racist agendas. When working in areas like the Caucasus where ethnicity, language, land and blood have all to often become rallying cries for militaristic politicians, Eurasia 98's scientists must be aware that they are practising their trade on thin ice.

But one thing that is becoming increasingly clear through such work is that all the world's peoples are much more closely related to one another than many nationalists and bigots would have us believe - and an increasing understanding of that fact can only be a good thing.

Words by Darius Bazargan, images by Mark Read

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