*An Interview with Prof.Dr.med. Ingo Kennerknecht by E. Halawa & MJ Daeli

Editor’s note: On 10 Augutst 2007 Yaahowu sent 9 interview questions to Prof.Dr.med. Ingo Kennerknecht of the Institute of Human Genetics, University of Munster, Germany, regarding his research on genetics of Nias People (see article: Merunut Asal-Usul Orang Nias Berdasarkan DNA/Gen). On 17 October 2007, Yaahowu received Prof. Kennerknecht’ responses. The interview questions were compiled by E. Halawa from Yaahowu and M.J. Daeli, a Nias elder and an occasional article contributor to Yaahowu. Both the interviewers acknowldge the contributions from Yaahowu visitors who left their comments on a number of articles displayed in this website which proved to be of a valuable help in making this interview possible.

Prof. Ingo Kennerknecht, it has been 5 years since Fr. Raymond, the webmaster of Nias Portal Website interviewed you. It has been 4 years since you visited Nias for the purpose of your research on the origins of Nias people based on DNA technology and population genetics. Can you tell us about the progress of this exciting research ?

A lot of population genetics work has been done through all over Asia giving now a rough idea of the general peopling of this continent and also of Australia. Yet, studies on single populations still remain a challenge. Well studied examples are the neolithic groups inhabiting the Andaman islands and parts of Papua New Guinea. The results are still a matter of discussion. Now, we want to study whether this increasing number of data already allow to trace the roots of Nias. This is a very basic research and the work is still in progress.

In your interview with Nias Portal, you expressed your relief that Nias people, who initially were reluctant to take part in your research as “blood donors”, finally supported you in your research by giving their blood to you for use in your research. What can you tell Nias people about your research and how can they benefit from this?

Like described by Sykes in his bestseller, “The seven daughters of eve”, which became the stem mothers of Europe also the South-East Asian – and perhaps the people from Nias will learn some day where they come from. The question were do we and finally were do I come from is certainly as old as mankind. This is the point where genetic and cultural heritage comes together. The study is population based and not individually. Hence, with the help of those many blood donors the Nias people will benefit as a whole.

You said in the interview with Nias Portal: “The main objective of the research on Niassan DNA samples is to investigate the origins of Nias people and the history of their spread over the island”. Are there any other objectives apart from this main objective ?

Whether we can trace the historical spread of the Niassian over their island is still an open question. At the moment one can only differ by molecular genetic methods between e.g. Indian, Central Chinese and South East Asian people – and this is only possible statistically and practically not for a single person. Single groups are only seen as distinct, when they are from very remote areas with next to no exchange with other ethnic groups around. Other objectives apart from this are the delineation of inborn errors and its genetic dissection. The rate of congenital diseases is world wide the same but the etiology and clinical manifestation of the given diseases is different between the ethnicities.

How do you explain to layman the relation between the population genetics and the oral tradition ? One of the oral traditions in Nias says that Nias people are descended from “heaven”. How would you relate this with the population genetics ?

As there is no longer doubt about that the origin of all modern humans is Africa, it is clear that from “heaven” means in this context just from “outside” (the island).

You are very impressed with the village of Sifalagö Gomo as the strong candidate “as the village of Nias ancestors” who landed in Nias from Asian mainland. Can you explain the logic of this hypothesis ? It would be more logical to imagine that Nias ancestors would have found a location near the coast where they landed and established a settlement there ? Why do you think they decided to go to Sifalagö Gomo instead and settled there?

First of all this is in accordance with the oral tradition and the myths which repeatedly refer to Sifalagö Gomo. When having been to this place myself, I was impressed by the lovely, fertile countryside, crossed by the river Gomo, and protected by the mountains. In former times with dense forests the rivers allowed the best access to the country side. On a high quality satellite photo I recognized by chance that Sifalgö Gomo excellently fulfills the criteria for a good settlement: Not too far from the sea, situated in a large valley, safely hidden behind a mountain range and good accessible by the river Gomo which has cut himself deeply through the mountain barrier. In turn of Hia, I would also have taken this place as a first choice in dangerous times.

Although not as intense as assimilation processes that occur in big cities, Nias society to some extent have undergone the assimilation with other ethnic groups. This fact raises the question regarding the collected blood samples of 620 (or 785 ?) Nias people. Do those samples truly represent the distribution of Nias population ? How do you know that the samples you collected are those from “genuine” Ono Niha ? How do you define the “true” or “genuine” Ono Niha and how do you distinguish them from those who have undergone assimilation?

You bring the difficulties of this work to the point. In contrast to the remote neolithic population of the Andamans, many ethnicities should have settled on the island of Nias during thousands of years. Hence, beside their cultural identity, it will be difficult to say whether one is from a genetical point of view an Ono Niha or not. Because of this admixture the genetic heritage from very ancient times is diluted but not necessarily lost. The aim of this study is therefore to look for putative ancient markers in the recent (modern) genetic pool. With the increase of markers from all over Asia it should be feasible one day to even trace different clans within a population.

Have you published any results of your research so far, albeit in the form of preliminary findings?

In 2006 an international group of people with common interest on the cultural heritage and wellbeing of the inhabitants of Nias island came together in Vienna/Austria. As a consequence a network named “Nias island research network” was established which is now accessible at http://www.nirn.org/ also giving preliminary scientific data.

Research is often associated with inventions or discovery. This is related to intellectual property rights of the inventor(s). Do you intend to lodge a patent application for what you have discovered so far in your research ? To what extend this rights are shared among the parties involved: Fr. Johannes Hammerle (Museum Pusaka Nias), Dr. Idaman Zega (Nias Public Health Authority), Nias people who gave their blood to you and even the Indonesian Government ?

The study was done with full informed and written consent of all subjects who volunteered. We also had the placet of the Nias Public Health Authority c/o Dr. Idaman Zega, of the Bupati Nias Binahati B. Baeha, SH, and of the local ethical committee of my home University in Münster/Germany. We have declared that there are no commercial interests and that no patents will be applied. As soon as we have valid data they will be published in scientific peer reviewed papers according to international standards and available to everyone who is interested in.

Apart from support from Museum Pusaka Nias and Nias Public Authority, have you obtained any formal support from the Indonesian Government (in this case the Indonesian Ministry of Research and Technology) for this exiting research ?

Until now the expenses of the ongoing study are almost only covered by my basic research money as given by my university. (brk)

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