Book Review: The Seven Daughters of Eve – by Bryan Sykes

Seven DaughtersThere are seven individual women, who lived between 10,000 years ago and 45,000 years ago between the Middle East and various areas of Europe, who are the direct ancestors of 95% of all European people alive today. Yes, exactly seven women. I am European, so I am likely the direct descendent of one of those seven individuals.

How can this be possible?

In a previous post I mused about how many ancestors we all have. I made the point that going back just 28 generations, or only about 675 years, I have over 130 million ancestors. The chart in that post illustrates that. However, the maternal line, going back to my mother, and from her to her mother, and so on, moving back through time, there is only ONE in each generation. There may be a million ancestors in a given generation, but there is only ONE mother of a mother of a mother of a mother and so on.

The author Bryan Sykes is a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford. He has done pioneering work in genetics, specializing in studying mitochondrial DNA. One of the striking attributes is that the mitochondrial DNA is not passed on by males, only by females. Therefore, my personal mitochondrial DNA can be studied and compared with that of other contemporaries. When Sykes did this, he discovered that all modern Europeans pretty much belonged to one of only seven “groups” or “clans” as he calls them. Studying mutation frequency and the base mitochondrial DNA, coupled with the anthropological record, he was able to determine that there were seven specific women that are the mothers of all Europeans. Here is an excerpt:

The seven clusters had ages of between 45,000 and 10,000 years. What these estimates actually tell us is the length of time it has taken for all the mutations that we see within a cluster to have arisen from a single founder sequence. And, by purely logical deduction, the inescapable but breathtaking conclusion is that the single founder sequence at the root of each of the seven clusters was carried by just one woman in each case. So the ages we had given to each of the clusters became the times in the past when these seven women, the clan mothers, actually lived. It required only that I gave them names to bring them to life and to arouse in me, and everyone who has heard about them, an intense curiosity about their lives. Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine became real people. I chose names that began with the letter by which the clusters had been known since we had adopted Antonio Torroni’s alphabetic classification system. Ursula was the clan mother of cluster U. Cluster H had Helena at its root. Jasmine was the common ancestor for cluster J; and so on. These were no longer theoretical concepts, obscured by statistics and computer algorithms; they were now real women. But what were they like, these women to whom almost everyone in Europe is connected by an unbroken, almost umbilical thread reaching back into the deep past? (pp. 196-197).

He then traced further back into our African roots and found one single woman, who lived about 150,000 years ago in Africa, who is the mother of all human beings alive today. He calls her fittingly Mitochondrial Eve.

Sykes writes The Seven Daughters of Eve for the non-scientist, but he goes through great pains to describe his research, the steps he went through to come to his conclusions, and the various scientific hurdles he had to jump. The book reads like a detective story, and I had trouble putting it down. After he makes his scientific points, the muses about the lives of the seven women. How might they have lived, what were the conditions of their lives like, how did they spend their days?

The roots of our human existence, our history and our unique humanness became alive for me as I read this book. Many times I was caught in reveries, dreaming about the lives of my ancestors. I was overwhelmed by the immense time periods that have elapsed, and how very unlikely our human existence actually is. 45,000 years represents about 2,000 generations. I know my grandmother. That’s three generations. However, my grandmother’s DNA comes from one of the seven daughters of Eve, 2,000 generations ago.

The Seven Daughters of Eve inspired me on many levels and has enriched my life. I will never think about humanity the same way again.

Rating: ****