Hayern Aysor’s correspondent sat down for an interview with Head of the Laboratory of Ethnogenomics of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia (NAS RA0, PhD in Biological Sciences and Professor Levon Yepiskoposyan to talk about the genetic mapping of historic Armenia (including Western Armenia) and the Armenian gene pool.
Hayern Aysor: Mr. Yepiskoposyan, what is the Laboratory of Ethnogenomics involved in?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: Our laboratory studies the genetic history of the Armenian people. After two decades of studies, we have already recorded some results. For instance, last year, the Laboratory and the international community showed that the Armenians of Eastern Armenia are the direct genetic descendants of the Neolithic population of this region. Now we are working on creating a genetic atlas of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia). The target of this initiative is the geographical mapping of the Armenian gene pool and restoration of the genetic history of our ancestors.
Generally speaking, the study of the history of Armenia and the origin of the Armenians is a difficult task from different perspectives. A tremendous amount of valuable historical documents have either been eliminated or have disappeared as a result of several raids and natural disasters. In addition, as a result of the geopolitical split of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia) among neighboring countries, archival, archaeological and anthropological studies have become disputed and are often hard to conduct. However, even though most of the populations of the states of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia) have been forcefully displaced throughout the past centuries, fortunately, their descendants maintain indelible information in their genes that provide the opportunity to restore the genetic heritage of their ancestors. This is the main goal of the plan for preparation of a genetic atlas of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia).
Hayern Aysor: Could you please provide details about the project?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: The goal of the creation of a genetic atlas of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia) is to reproduce the rich geographical picture of the Armenian gene pool that was formed and has become enriched in the Armenian Highland for thousands of years. In addition, this will allow to answer several fundamental questions related to the origin of the Armenians since it was impossible to answer those questions through the classic subjects of Armenology.
The atlas will also be applied in practice. Firstly, it will serve as a valuable source of information for historians, archaeologists and linguists who study the ethnogenesis of Armenians, Armenian culture and language, as well as the interactions among the nations of the region in ancient times. At the same time, the atlas will serve as valid evidence of the presence of the Armenians and their direct genetic ancestors in the Armenian Highland.
The modernity of the project also needs to be observed in the context of the geopolitical realities in our region. Today, anthropological genetics depends more and more on the oldest study of DNA (separated from the ointment of human beings in different eras), including in the territory of Western Armenia. The creation of a genetic atlas of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia) will allow us to prevent any distortion of genetic and ethnic identity of anthropological materials excavated in this region.
Hayern Aysor: What are the hindrances to this project?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: Currently, the Laboratory’s workers are collecting samples of the DNA of Armenians today, and donors can be people whose paternal and maternal ancestors were originally from the same region of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia). However, the number of Armenians meeting this requirement is declining considerably from one generation to the next. Therefore, the samples need to be collected as soon as possible. In addition, today, it is extremely difficult to find the descendants of the populations in the western states whose ancestors were originally from the same place. Consequently, the samples also need to be collected within Armenian communities of the Diaspora, including in Russia, Iran, the Middle East, the Americas and Western Armenia, which is difficult and requires a lot of funding.
Hayern Aysor: What has been done to this day?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: It is necessary to collect 8-10 DNA samples from the donors representing 20-25 different geographical regions of Historic Armenia in order to create a genetic atlas, making up nearly 200 samples. We have already collected more than 100 DNA samples, six of which have been completely genotyped. The results will be used to solve the specified fundamental and practical issues.
Another major asset of the project is the real opportunity for the creation of a gene pool that the future generations of Armenian (and not only) scholars will use to conduct research on the features (including medical features) of the gene pool of Armenians in the future.
Hayern Aysor: You presented your project to Minister of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia Hranush Hakobyan as well. What conclusions did you draw after the meeting?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: Since the project is pan-national in nature, I deem it necessary to draw the attention of our compatriots in the Diaspora. I asked the Minister to inform Diaspora Armenians visiting Armenia about this initiative in any possible way. By meeting the specified requirements and with the desire to participate, they can donate a blood sample and support the creation of a genetic atlas of Historic Armenia (including Western Armenia).
Hayern Aysor: What is your message to our compatriots?
Levon Yepiskoposyan: This initiative, which will prevent the danger of the irreversible loss of the genetic memory of the historic birthplaces of our ancestors, will eternalize the centuries-old heritage of the Armenians, leading to the creation of a “genetic register”. The fact that such monuments are the valuable wealth of the nation is irrefutable. Therefore, to successfully implement this exclusive project, I call on all of our compatriots to show active participation in the project called “Genetic Atlas of Historic Armenia” (including Western Armenia) .
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