The Origins of Zana of Abkhazia

Recently, Margaryan et al published a paper titled The genomic origin of Zana of Abkhazia.

Margaryan was the lead author on the 2020 paper, the Population genomics of the Viking world. I wrote about that in the article, 442 Ancient Viking Skeletons Hold DNA Surprises – Does Your Y or Mitochondrial DNA Match?

Why are people interested in the origins of Zana? Who was Zana?

Zana

Zana was initially believed to have been a member of a group of Afro-Abkhazian people who lived in the Caucasus in the later 1800s.

Known as the African Caucasians, the Abkhazians of African descent lived in and near the settlement of Adzyubzha on the east coast of the Black Sea.

By Unknown author – livejournal.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8701583

This photo of an Afro-Abkhazian family is from “Caucasus. Volume I. The peoples of the Caucasus”, St. Petersburg., Kovalevsky P. I., 1914.

It’s uncertain how this group of African people came to live in this region, but they seem to have arrived when the region was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s, possibly as slaves to work the citrus plantations. In 1927, two Russian men visited the village and met elderly Africans. The Russian men felt that an Ethiopian version of their arrival story was likely accurate since there were several parallels between the names of the villages in Ethiopia and the Afro-Abkhazian villages.

By the 1800s, they spoke only the northwest Caucasian Abkhaz language.

The origins of Zana herself are cloaked in myth. One thing is for certain. Zana was exploited horribly.

How much of the story of Zana’s origins is accurate, and how much was concocted to justify her subsequent treatment is unknown.

The Story

Zana was reportedly living wild and naked in the forest in the Caucasus region. These mountains had long been rumored to hold creatures similar to Bigfoot, called Almasty in Russia.

The story goes that a traveling noble merchant, possibly Edgi Genaba, heard about an apewoman living in the forest and paid the local men to capture this poor creature sometime between 1850 and 1870. The locals forced her into a spike-lined pit.

The nobleman paid the men, named his captive Zana, shackled her, took her home, and enclosed Zana in a cage where she dug a hole in which to sleep. A slightly different version of the story says that Zana was sold from man to man until Genaba bought her.

Zana was apparently covered in thick red hair, powerfully muscular and at 6 feet 6 inches in height, towering over the local residents. When given clothes, she reportedly would shred them.

Genaba charged people who would come and gawk at the naked caged “apewoman” who could not or did not speak.

Zana did not try to escape and eventually, she was granted some reprieve by “only” being chained to a fence.

Eventually, Zana was taught to do chores and in essence, became a servant. She was also provided with alcohol. The local men repeatedly raped Zana while she was drunk.

Zana reportedly had a total of 6 children by unknown local men, although only four can be relatively assured and two proven. Zana apparently took the first two babies to a river to wash them, but the children died. After that, the local women took the following four children away from Zana to protect them since she apparently didn’t understand how to care for an infant.

None of Zana’s children had her thick hair. They all spoke normally and had families. Pictures remain of two of her children, a daughter, Kodzhanar and a son, Khwit. You can see photos of Kodzhanar, Khwit and Khwit’s children, here, in a supplement to the paper.

Zana died after living in captivity for about 20 years, having been taken advantage of, first by Genaba and eventually, by the village men as well.

But Zana’s exploitation didn’t even end there.

Dr. Bryan Sykes, once a respected geneticist, in his later years, became a Bigfoot hunter. After analyzing DNA evidence from Zana’s granddaughter and relatives, along with the remains of her son, Sykes suggested that Zana belonged to a “sub-species of modern humans,” and called her “half human and half ape,” according to a Daily Mail article published in April of 2015. Sykes published a book in 2015, whose title I refuse to print, in which he suggests that Zana’s ancestors exited Africa 100,000 years before and she and her ancestors had, in essence, become a Caucuses Bigfoot – or Almasty in the local vernacular. However, Sykes also states that Zana was 100% African, had genes from west Africa, yet resembled no west African group of people. If you’re scratching your head saying to yourself that those things are contradictory – you’d be right.

Thankfully, Margaryan has now published a respectful academic paper about Zana.

The genomic origin of Zana of Abkhazia

Margaryan paper abstract:

Enigmatic phenomena have sparked the imagination of people around the globe into creating folkloric creatures. One prime example is Zana of Abkhazia (South Caucasus), a well-documented 19th-century female who was captured living wild in the forest. Zana’s appearance was sufficiently unusual, that she was referred to by locals as an Almasty—the analog of Bigfoot in the Caucasus. Although the exact location of Zana’s burial site was unknown, the grave of her son, Khwit, was identified in 1971. The genomes of Khwit and the alleged Zana skeleton were sequenced to an average depth of ca. 3× using ancient DNA techniques. The identical mtDNA and parent-offspring relationship between the two indicated that the unknown woman was indeed Zana. Population genomic analyses demonstrated that Zana’s immediate genetic ancestry can likely be traced to present-day East-African populations. We speculate that Zana might have had a genetic disorder such as congenital generalized hypertrichosis which could partially explain her strange behavior, lack of speech, and long body hair. Our findings elucidate Zana’s unfortunate story and provide a clear example of how prejudices of the time led to notions of cryptic hominids that are still held and transmitted by some today.

Hypertrichosis

Hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome” is an extremely rare condition in which an abnormal amount of hair grows on the body. While this condition can develop later in life, it can also be congenital, or present at birth.

In some cases, hair grows all over the body, but in others, only grows in some places.

While Zana’s hair growth suggests hypertrichosis, Zana may have had other challenges as well given that she was nonverbal.

In medieval times, people who suffered from hypertrichosis often lived in courts and functioned as entertainers. In the 19th and 20th centuries, you could find them as performers in circuses and sideshows.

Congenital hypertrichosis, present from birth, can be inherited.

Petrus Gonsalvus, born in 1537 and referred to as “the man of the woods” spent his life in royal courts in Italy and France. He had seven children, four of whom apparently inherited the mutation for this condition from Petrus.

Petrus and his children with excessive hair, two of whom are shown above, were not considered fully human, although their court life allowed them to be well documented.

Petrus married Lady Catherine and their story may have been at least a part of the inspiration for the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, published in 1740, 122 years after Petrus’s death.

Zana’s Son, Khwit’s Y DNA

Due to Zana’s circumstances, we have no idea who Khwit’s father was. Khwit and the father himself may have not known either, given how Zana was treated by the local men who raped her. Furthermore, Zana’s children were taken from her and she was non-verbal, so even if she did know, she couldn’t have told her children.

Khwit’s Y DNA provides tantalizing clues.

FamilyTreeDNA’s analysis of Zana’s son, Khwit’s Y chromosome places him in the R-Z2103 subclade of R1b associated with the Yamnaya culture, and more specifically on branch R-Y4364 which has its highest frequency in the Caucasus.

You can see that the flags beside the subgroups above R-FTA50400 are all represented in the Caucasus region; Armenia, Russian Federation, Turkey, and the Palestinian Territory. They also reach into the surrounding areas: Italy, Poland, Greece, Germany, and then beneath Khwit’s branch, we find Scotland represented by subclade R-FTA49702. Khwit and the man from Scotland share 14 variants that branch subclade R-FTA50400 from R-FGCLR459.

Scotland? Well, that’s unexpected.

Looking at the block tree, below, you can see that while the two men are related back in time, it’s distant and they are separated by many private variants.

How long ago did the common ancestor of Khwit and the Scotsman live?

Goran Runfeldt, Head of Research and Development at FamilyTreeDNA, indicated that an early estimate would be that the common ancestor of Khwit’s father and the tester from Scotland would have lived in the Caucasus about 2200 years ago.

He stated that additional Big Y-700 testing is underway and a more definitive MRCA date may be able to be established.

Zana’s Mitochondrial DNA

Of course, Zana’s children all carried her mitochondrial DNA. Her daughters passed Zana’s mitochondrial DNA on to their children as well.

Fortunately, Zana’s mitochondrial DNA helps reassemble the pieces of Zana’s history.

I reached out to Dr. Miguel Vilar, a member of the Million Mito team member in the hope of revealing more of Zana’s puzzle. Dr. Villar is a molecular anthropologist at UMD and former lead scientist for the Genographic Project.

Dr. Vilar offered:

The DNA data and old stories together paint a very sad picture for the historical figure of Zana. The PCA plot of the autosomal DNA suggests she was genetically related to the Dinka pastoralist people from South Sudan, a marginalized group known to be above average in height and body size. Further, Zana’s mtDNA results place her on a basal branch of L2b1b, which geographically would align with an East Central African origin.

The combination of Zana’s height, body size, hair, and (apparent) inability to speak certainly advanced or at least fostered the story of Zana not being human.

Unfortunately, these combined features seemed to justify the non-human treatment of Zana by the local residents, particularly the men.

Contemporary DNA analysis proves Zana was fully human with African origins. She was not admixed with non-African DNA. How she or her family came to the Caucasus, or when, is unknown, but it likely has to do with the Ottoman Empire slave trade that began in the 16th century. The legend of Zana has probably grown and changed with time and retelling.

Ethics

Clearly, Zana’s original situation and later exploitation have been an ethical quagmire.

The authors of the Zana paper perhaps sum this up best:

Following her capture in the forest, Zana was deprived of her basic human rights, and treated as a slave: she was kept in captivity, likely forced to have sexual relations with local men, and worked in forced labor conditions. After she passed away, the accounts on her mythical figure attracted several scientists to unearth her story and her son’s bones were exhumed. Our study intends both to reveal the true human nature of Zana and grant her and her descendants’ remains the dignity they deserve.

Zana’s story isn’t over. Additional testing and analysis are being performed. Based on those findings, if any, we may be able to add another chapter to Zana’s story.

Zana, like everyone else, deserves the truth, even if unraveled and told posthumously. We can’t right the historical wrongs today, but at least we can correct the record.

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14 thoughts on “The Origins of Zana of Abkhazia

      • The story of Zana was the subject of an English ( BBC ? ) TV documentary. Brian Sykes commented and contributed to it. BJBlakely , Maple ,Ont. Canada

      • Very tragic story! What is crazy is that me and Zana share the same haplogroup. I came across her story when researching online. We share a common ancient ancestor. May she rest.

  1. The Wikipedia entry for Sykes and his obituary in the Guardian don’t mention his involvement in this horror show. Perhaps he was ill in his later years, and perhaps he simply reflects more of the dark side of genetics history.

    • From his very first book for ordinary people, he was a populariser.
      I know many people he has inspired, but even from the first if you wanted to know the hard facts, you had to go elsewhere. (Just like much of the science and history I was taught in my early years at school.)
      To me Blood of the Isles still stands up well, but my general recommendation for his works would be to read the original reference papers or search for good science press articles on them. Or just read other science writers on the same topic as well.
      In general, it is wise to judge any science writer by the reviews of their work by experts in the field.

    • Brian Sykes took part in a documentary about Zana …It was aired on TV several years ago …BJBlakely , Maple ,Ont.Canada

  2. Thanks for this : an excellent review . I had heard of her before as an example of a rare pre-human hominid ( no DNA data was available ) . Wendell Goins

  3. OK, that was an intense read. What a terrible existence. For that time, living in the wild would have been the best place Zana… far less dangerous than living isolated and abused in human society.

    As a side note, I began to read this post because I’m slightly mystified how the Y chromosome (J-L283) for my German ancestors, through the line of my maternal grandmother’s father (Holzapfel), is more common in south Europe into the Balkans and West Asia, and somehow also leading to Caucasus mysteriously… albeit in ancient times. I can go back to the Harz mountains with this line… a gunsmith in the early 1800’s.

    Reading about DNA popping up in places unexpected…can lead to some interesting stories… when you can connect enough of the dots.

  4. Roberta, thank you for sharing this story about Zana and her son Khwit. I am always fascinated by the work of folks who I call “genetic detectives” and I am thankful for the efforts of the research team to restore Zana’s humanity, even if it late in coming. What also fascinates me about this story is Khwit’s Genetic kinsman from Scotland.

    I am also R-Z2103 of English descent. If I remember correctly, Z2103 was first identified about September 2009. My Y-DNA results match those of several other surnames whose genealogical trails all lead back to the region of southwest England and Wales, generally the Counties bordering the waters of the Bristol Channel.

    I set up a geographic project for this region with the focus on Z2103 with 36 members spread across more than 10 surnames. Many of our members have Big Y tested and we are getting a better understanding of how we are all distantly related, but no closer to determining why our branch of the human tree is located there when the majority of Z2103 descendants are found in the regions much closer to the Caucuses.

    Speculation among project members range from decent from Roman Soldiers or their Slaves, or Norman invaders, but some also speculate that perhaps it was somehow tied to Neolithic Copper mining in Wales, since genetic archaeological evidence also places Z2103 near Copper Mines in the Caucuses. But again, it is just all guess work by a bunch of us scientific laymen and laywomen.

    However, the discovery of the Scotland connection, and further research into it might also help us better determine our deeper ancestral story, so I thank you for sharing the story of Zana and her son Khwit, and I look forward to hearing what the next chapter of this story will reveal.

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