In DC’s Legends of Tomorrow series that recently debuted, Time Master Rip Hunter has come back to 2016 to gather a handful of heroes to help him defeat Vandal Savage (played by Casper Crump). If you’ve only watched the trailer for the series, you’ll catch Hunter saying something along the lines that the heroes he’s gathering are more than just second stringers (which they are in the 2016 CW DC Universe) – in his time, they’re legends. Hence the title. There’s a neat twist to his claim by the way, which gives the show a bit of heart.
But we’re here today to talk about Vandal Savage. There are a few versions of Savage bouncing around DC, depending on which continuity you look at. In comics, he was (generally speaking, as his comics’ story has changed over the years) a Cro Magnon “caveman” named Vandar Adg who, around 50,000 BCE was dosed with radiation that made him immortal. Couldn’t die. Being evil, Savage was the main bad guy throughout history – he was Blackbeard, Genghis Khan, Caesar (or Brutus, depending on which story you read), and any number of bad actors.
Legends of Tomorrow has basically kept the overall approach, but bumped Savage up in the timstream. Now, Savage was originally Hath-Set, an Egyptian high priest who served Prince Khufu and was secretly in love with Chay-ara about 4,000 years ago (about 2,000 BCE). She wasn’t having it, and not being able to handle rejection, Hath-Set murdered both Chay-ara and Khufu. From the origin flashback, a meteor happened along in ancient Egypt right then, and dosed them all with radiation that resulted in Hath-Set becoming immortal (doesn’t die), while Khufu and Chay-ara are serial reincarnators (reborn after they die).
In the first episode of Legends of Tomorrow, Kendra Saunders (the reincarnated Chay-ara) and Carter Hall (the reincarnated Khufu) go back in time with Hunter and the gang to 1975 to find an expert on Savage. What they didn’t expect was that Professor Aldus Boardman, the expert, was Kendra and Carter‘s son from a previous reincarnation.
(Yes, Kendra and Carter are Legends’ Hawkman and Hawkgirl, and yes, they have big wings. For a look at how wings and humans don’t mix, head over here.)
Which got us thinking about descendants and ancestors.
Not the Hawks – they reincarnate. But what about Vandal Savage?
One of the many themes Savage has had in the comics has been family – his descendants. Sometimes, he’s looking for them in order to harvest their organs as his fail, and sometimes, he’s taken part in raising them, such as the Secret Six’s Scandal Savage.
So let’s play a game – and pardon us if this is more math than science – but how many descendants would Vandal Savage have if he had a fair number of children after the messiness in Egypt was cleared up?
In other words, who could Vandal Savage claim as a descendant in today’s world if he’s been around since 2,000 BCE?
Short answer: everyone. And we’re so not kidding.
This is all family tree stuff, and there are two ways to approach it. First, if you go from the present backwards, everything is based on twos: you had two parents, each of them had two parents, and each of those folks had two parents too. Your number of ancestors doubles every generation you go back, which for sake of argument, we’re calling 25 years.
The thing with going from the present day backwards leads us to our first problem – just going backwards for 40 generations, 1000 years, and you’ve got exponential growth leading to over 500 billion ancestors. We’ve only got 7 billion on the planet today, so this model can’t possibly be right. How do we pull it back into reality?
Not brother-sister stuff, but rather your ancestors don’t remain distinct as you go backwards. Lines cross and ancestors show up time and time again in your family tree. This is called “pedigree collapse” – cousins marry cousins, most often, bring in some of the farther-out branches of the family tree.
“If you go back far enough, however, pedigree collapse happens to everybody. Think of your personal family tree as a diamond-shaped array imposed on the ever-spreading fan of human generations. (I told you this was cosmic.) As you trace your pedigree back, the number of ancestors in each generation increases steadily up to a point, then slows, stops, and finally collapses.”
So if you’re at the bottom of the pyramid, who’s at the top? Well, if we’re talking about the DC Universe of Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow, that would be Vandal Savage. And just to be clear, everyone would have a similar, subjective pyramid, with Savage at the top.
In terms of extreme genealogy such as this, the role Savage plays has a name: Most Common Recent Ancestor, or MRCA. Humanity’s MCRA is simply that – the most recent person from whom every human alive today is descended…or related to.
To be clear, the MCRA was not the sole inhabitant of the planet, or part of a starting couple. Present-day humanity’s MCRA probably shared the earth with millions of other humans – however, over the generations, the other lines died out, or only resulted in smaller groups of modern-day humans as their descendants. To be the MCRA, their children had to survive and have families of their own. In other words, found a line of descendants that did not die out.
Three things that we should mention and consider:
- This isn’t entirely math based like we ran into starting from the present and calculating how many ancestors you have. This is about lines that continue on through time. As long as someone survives and reproduces in each successive generation, you’re good. Sure, more kids would help your case, but it’s not essential to be having your own basketball team-sized family. A few generations of everyone having three or more kids would get you well in the running for being the MCRA.
- This isn‘t necessarily about tracking DNA through the centuries, either. This is just about relationships. Thanks to sexual reproduction, the DNA that you may give to your children will be, for all intents and purposes, gone after 32 generations. Each successive child gets less and less of your chromosomes (unless you double up by inbreeding close relatives with strong doses of the chromosomes – which comes with its own problems).
- It’s pretty much an accepted fact that everyone with European blood in them is probably related to Charlemagne. Seriously. He had 18 kids. That was just 1300 years ago, give or take. Likewise, if Jesus Christ did have a bloodline of descendants as was suggested in The DaVinci Code and many conspiracy theories, there wouldn’t be just one narrow line of descendants unless is was massively (and inhumanely) managed. Rather, the blood of Christ would be spread out across nearly all of humanity.
Anyway…in our universe, which we like to call “reality,” our MCRA probably isn’t anyone special, although there is a debated theory about Genghis Khan’s bloodline being spread throughout middle Asia to such an extent that 1 in 200 men carry Khan’s genes; and some point to the MCRA being the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops, a.k.a. Kheops) who built the Great Pyramid. It’s more likely our true MCRA was just a lucky man or woman who lived about 4500 years ago on the outside, or perhaps as recently as 1000 years ago.
To counter some critics, current models for humans’ MCRA do take into account our species’ migration patterns over the past millennia. While patterns and isolated populations do throw a monkey wrench into the larger picture, the models account for (largely) European explorers intermarrying (and interbreeding, speaking biologically) with indigenous people of colonized territories, thus adding their descendants to the larger family tree.
Folding completely isolated peoples into the mix carries with it the potential of pushing back the MCRA from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, but if we stay focused on contacted humanity, we’re still looking at in the neighborhood of the MCRA between 4,000 and 1,000 years ago.
Long story short before we leave our reality and go back to the DC Universe – we’re all related. Some say that we’re all 50th cousins, but it’s more likely much closer than that.
As Joseph T. Chang, Douglas L.T. Rhode and Steve Olson state in their 2004 letter to Nature on humanity’s MCRA:
“No matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu. [And] within two thousand years, it is likely that everyone on earth will be descended from most of us.”
Okay – so back to the DC Universe, and why is Vandal Savage the DC Universe’s MCRA?
Well first up, we like the revised-for-TV origin. If we buy the information was shown to us in Savage’s origin story, Hath-Set was born around 4,000 years ago, that is, about 2,000 years BCE. That puts him nicely in the timeframe of when a MCRA would be alive in for the modern world, according to recent models and studies.
(Okay – there is some weirdness with the timeline here – in The Flash/Arrow crossover, Carter tells Kendra that Savage has killed them 206 times throughout the centuries, which is (a) really depressing, and (b) suggests that Kendra and Carter’s reincarnation takes place more than one time per generation, as 206 x 25 is 5,150 years, which puts them outside of their own origin story)
Secondly, Savage has always been shown to be a man with vision. He’s got dynasty on his mind. His characterization and storyline suggest that he had kids. Lots of kids. And made sure they lived. And spread out around the world. And of course, he stomped out any competing dynasties over the years. Throw in a little genetic hand-waving that says his offspring are a little tougher because of their dad, and you’ve got a strong case for Savage’s bloodline survival and thriving for centuries.
Finally, the nail in the coffin reason why Savage is the DC Universe’s MCRA – he’s immortal. For Savage and reproduction, generations don’t really matter. He’s been having kids for 4,000 years. So everything about how the MCRA existed and when, as discussed above? Obviously, it’s fluid and, in reality, changes. Not in the DC Universe though – their MCRA is Vandal Savage, and will be Vandal Savage for centuries to come.
That’s one big family reunion.
I hope someone brings pie.
postscript – while the above focuses on the version of Vandal Savage who’s portrayed in The CW’s Arrow, The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Savage is also currently active in the comic book DC Universe, bothering Superman and his extended cast. As shown in Superman Annual #3, Savage’s current comics origin still stretches back to Cro-Magnon times and the meteor. In the Annual’s storyline, he was shown interacting with the Han Dynasty, the Templars in 16th century Rome, and getting help from the Nazis (of course) in 1941.
And the “family” aspect of Savage is stronger than ever – while in the Han Dynasty flashback, Savage stated, “Long ago, lifetimes ago, I declared that I would create the strongest clan forever.” Savage’s quest for “the strongest clan forever,” is the thrust of the storyline, as he’s been collecting “children” to his side, with promises of a better world – which they will rule.
What does this man for Savage as the MCRA of the DCU? It only makes the connections stronger. If Savage has been pointedly trying to create a powerful clan for over 50 millennia, and not stopping at generational breaks, everyone in the DCU is related to him, and as we said before, everyone (except Superman, Wonder Woman and any other aliens or visitors from isolated populations) will be related to him for centuries to come.