| Issue 59 Contents |
From Cemetery to Celebrity: Our Seven Mothers
The Seven Daughters of Eve:
The Astonishing Story that Reveals How Each of Us Can Trace Our Genetic Ancestors
By Bryan Sykes
Bantam Press, 306 pp, $34
reviewed by Heather Rossiter
To make a book on cutting-edge molecular technology both rivetting and accessible demands an author with special qualities. Bryan Sykes has wit, and his experience as a television news reporter taught him how to grab attention and to express the complex with beautiful simplicity.
His claim that almost everyone of European descent can trace an unbroken genetic link to one of only seven women, the ‘Seven Daughters of Eve’, who lived tens of thousands of years ago, has startled the anthropologists. His evidence shocked the genetic establishment. On his way to fame he tangled with the Iceman.
Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, England, deviated from his research into inherited bone disease in 1988 when he stepped into a medieval cemetery in Abingdon one ‘brilliantly sunny day and dozens of field assistants, stripped down to the bare essentials, were … scraping with trowels … rummaging in deep pits … Several skeletons lay half exposed’. His new research field was to be the DNA in ancient bones, its relationship to modern DNA, and how it records the ancestry of modern humans. His scientific adventures during the next decade reveal not only the excitement and frustration of front-line research, but also the malice and envy often lurking in the background.
Sykes’ research tool was mitochondrial DNA. Seldom does a week go by without some mention of it in the media. Sykes presents the concept to the non-scientist with great clarity. Mutations occur at a greater rate in mitochondrial DNA than in chromosomal DNA, and an even greater rate in a particular area called the control region. The number of differences in this area between one individual and another is used as an index of the time since they shared a common ancestor - in the female line.
In a lively chapter titled The Tsar and I, Sykes recounts his part in confirming that only three of the Romanov children were buried with their murdered parents in 1918, and in disproving Anna Anderson’s claim to be grand duchess Anastasia. Comparison of the dead Tsar’s DNA with the author’s showed they shared a grandmother 10 000 years ago. ‘Not,’ he concludes, ‘enough for me to make a realistic claim to the Romanov fortunes, I think.’
Thor Heyerdahl convinced a generation that the Polynesians had an American origin. Sykes, with a flick of his DNA amplifier, roots them firmly in Asia and follows their genetic trail into the scattered islands of the vast Pacific.
The Tsar and the Polynesians are the entree. The main course is the evolution of Homo sapiens. What is our relationship, he asked, to Neanderthals and to Homo erectus? Sykes began with an analysis of Welsh schoolchildren, expanded into Europe, and correlated his Asian and Pacific data. The Neanderthals, he concludes, left no genetic fingerprint in modern DNA. They were not our ancestors. More, he completely exonerates Homo sapiens, us, from multiple origins. We evolved, all of us, from one single line of Homo erectus.
The DNA sequences of the whole European population resolved into seven clusters. Looking at the time needed for these clusters to evolve, Sykes and his colleagues quickly disposed of the accepted idea of resident European hunter/ gatherer societies being replaced by an incoming tide of Neolithic farmers from the Middle East. The skill of agriculture spread, not its practitioners.
Getting rather cocky with the celebrity that followed publication of his data and conclusions, at a conference in Barcelona Sykes was suddenly blown out of the water by senior geneticists. A whispering campaign denigrating mitochondrial DNA began. The fierce competition that followed is recounted in a fascinating chapter, but eventually mitochondrial DNA, and Sykes, won the day, although not without a dash of sperm and evidence carried in the Y chromosome.
If the book so far is engrossing and stimulating, the concluding chapters make me uneasy. Professor Sykes sets the ‘Seven Daughters of Eve’ in their respective geographic and social environments - Tara in Tuscany during the last Ice Age, Jasmine on the River Euphrates somewhat later, etc. Because he is a civilised man (although his own story of his public humiliation of a dissenting female colleague suggests he can be ruthless), do his Rousseau-spectacles present a too gentle vision? In his primitive communities he sees no rape, neither desperation nor woman-bashing, no polygamy or interclan warfare. Perhaps the known attributes of these societies would have been better presented scientifically, leaving the reader to weave the fantasy and people the habitats.
Sykes deals the death blow to ‘man’ as synonym for ‘humans’. Descent from the Seven Daughters is strictly via the female line. Mitochondrial DNA proves it!
Heather Rossiter is the author of Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer, The Life of Herbert Dyce Murphy, Random House, 2001
This review first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2001