The "Narval" Backstory
By Carylanna Taylor, PhD
Anthropologists are trained to deconstruct and understand other cultures. ANYA provided me the unique opportunity construct a culture with the help of ANYA co-creator, Jacob Okada, geneticists Dr. Ting Wu and Dr. Ruth McCole, and multi-lingual anthropologist Dr. José Moreno as well as actors, non actor extras, and Jackson Heights, Queens location owners.
While ANYA only gives viewers a taste of the Narval’s culture, language, and biology, about as much as the non-Narval characters would be able to learn in the one-week time span covered by the film, their backstory stretches back millennia long before the Spanish colonized the Americas and gives the characters a mystery to explore.
ANYA began as a thought experiment between me and ANYA co-creator, Jacob Okada. The weeks-long conversation that led to the creation of the “Narval” people (or “Narwhal” people to outsider) went something like this:
JO: Could multiple species of humans exist on the planet today?
CT: We know that multiple species of the genus Homo co-existed in the past.
JO: But what about today?
CT: It’s possible that a geographically or culturally isolated group survived long enough in genetic isolation to develop and pass on a genetic variant that prohibited reproduction with other Homo sapiens sapiens. But it’s unlikely because of gene flow and migration. Anatomically modern humans move around a lot and they have a lot of sex along the way. Developing a separate species is unlikely.
JO: Improbable, but not impossible.
JO: Ok, let's say a group survived, how would we find them now?
CT: It’d be like a biological needle in a haystack.
JO: I read that a lot of infertility is unexplained.
CT: Right. Infertility stats and studies might start showing interesting patterns.
JO: You said geographically isolated?
CT: Yeah, like an isolated island or deep in a rainforest. Papua New Guinea’s extremely diverse.
JO: It’d be easier to film in the Caribbean.
(That’s when we had a script that took us to Narval Island… something now saved for “part 2.”)
CT: So maybe a group of indigenous people from mainland South America followed fish or birds to an island in the Caribbean. Maybe a small island off the coast of Colombia?
(At the time, I was doing freelance research with yucca farmers on Colombia’s Atlantic coast.)
JO: That works. How many people?
CT: Good question. We’d have to check with a population geneticist to see about timing and population size.
(We checked and settled on 5,000-10,000 as being a minimum for a sustainable population and at least a few thousand years for the genetic variant to become wide spread and allow it to be non-deleterious enough at first to be passed on and eventually deleterious enough to inhibit fertility with those who didn’t share the genetic variant.)
And there’s a sizable population of Colombian immigrants in Queens.
(I’d visited Jackson Heights, Queens when I was doing my dissertation research with Honduran immigrant in New York.)
JO: Budget wise we could only afford to tweak a few store fronts.
CT: If they really can’t have kids with outsiders, they’d keep to themselves. We could create an enclave community within the larger Latinx population.
(In practice, our actor’s and non actor extra’s were predominantly white Latinx and immigrants from several different countries. To account for this phenotype (a result of centuries of Spanish and Native American mixing, we added a completely fictitious but slightly possible Viking ship crash to the Narval’s back story. You can see a touch of that heritage in Marco’s robe.)
JO: Like the Hasidic Jewish community or the Amish.
CT: Exactly. Even on their home island they would have kept to themselves once the Spanish started arriving. They would have found ways to outwardly assimilate, but keep to themselves as much as possible. You’d see it in their language. And in their marital customs.
JO: They find way to keep people close to home.
CT: Or close to the community in the case of the immigrants.
JO: To protect themselves from persecution.
CT: That and heartbreak. If you had kids who’d be doomed to infertility with outsiders, wouldn’t you find ways to make them stay close to home? To protect them? Like religion?
JO: A curse?
CT: Sure. And marital customs.
JO: Like getting married as kids.
CT: That’s creepy. What about betrothed young?
JO: Save the wedding for young adulthood.
CT: Good idea.
The “Narval” people, their language, and their backstory developed from there: a group of people that lived in geographic isolation (an island of Columbia), developed a genetic variant that made it impossible to have children (provided by Ting Wu’s and Ruth McCole’s research with ultra-conserved elements of DNA), and an isolated (fictional) culture transplanted through immigration to contemporary Queens, New York.