The Seven Daughters of Eve
I first read it shortly after its publication in 2001. Science has moved on. There has been much new research and while scientists do not always agree on detail, the message from this remarkable book remains valid. Something in excess of 90% of the native people of Europe are descended from only seven women. They lived between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago in southern Europe and the Near East.
As a family historian who has managed to trace his roots back seven generations at most, I took a while to absorb this astonishing idea. However, once I had grasped it, I was filled with excitement and scientific curiosity to learn more.
Bryan Sykes is Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford. He has been involved in several high profile studies including the Iceman, Cheddar Gorge Man, the Tsar of Russia and mapping the origins of the Polynesians. Since 2000, he has been chairman of Oxford Ancestors Ltd, a company that supplies DNA services for personal research.
The Seven Daughters of Eve begins with the Iceman studies and goes on to explain the difference between nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Though all human beings have MtDNA, only women pass it on to their children. Its mutation rate is much faster than that of nuclear DNA, which makes it useful as a tool for checking ancestry. Professor Sykes gives a stage by stage description of how this is done and tells how the process enabled him and his team to identify his seven women – the mitochondrial ‘Eves’, the clan mothers. He also shows that, contrary to what was once popularly believed, European roots go back to the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic Ages.
The second half of The Seven Daughters reads more like a novel than a work of popular science. Having given names to his seven clan mothers, Professor Sykes writes short biographical sketches of each of them, imagining what their lives and the lives of their contemporaries might have been like. Each had at least two daughters – apart from being female, that is the single most important qualification for a clan mother. The earliest, Ursula (the name is appropriate) lived in a cave in peninsular Greece 45,000 years ago; the most recent, Jasmine, one of the first experimental farmers, lived in a village in the valley of the Euphrates shortly after the end of the last great Ice Age. The other five, Helena, Velda, Xenia, Katrine and Tara, all take their places in the aeons between. Ursula’s tribe may have shared this planet with the Neanderthals; by Helena’s day, Neanderthals had vanished from the Earth.
Worldwide, the Oxford geneticists and their colleagues elsewhere have identified 36 such mitochondrial clan mothers. As Professor Sykes wrote for the Wellcome Trust website in 2003:
“they join up with the clan mothers from other parts of the world and ultimately coalesce in one woman – mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa about 150 000 years ago. Wherever we live on the planet, we are all her descendants.
His research and his conclusions make nonsense of our pathetic attempts to divide humanity according to race or religion. We humans are all really a mixed bag of DNA. In the beginning, we all came out of Africa!