On first reflection a book review of The Seven Daughters of Eve by Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes might seem a very unlikely choice for this particular blog. And, it’s true, I was reading the book for very different reasons, as it is an introduction to genetic ancestry from the perspective of mtDNA, the DNA component that women pass along to their sons and daughters, and that their daughters pass along to their sons and daughters, etc., ad nauseum, for, as it turns out, for many thousands of years, scarcely, if at all, changed. Usually not changed at all, which is the point. And so while the book was an excellent introduction to that bit of information there were unexpected bonus points I would never have anticipated, and those extra bits are why I know am introducing this book to you. It will not be for all of you. But it will be for many of you. Trust me on this.
First a brief on the importance of mtDNA. Since it is relatively unchanging and passed for many thousands of years through mothers–and their daughters, only–it is now recognized, as Sykes explains, a letter from the women who lived upon the Earth many thousands of years ago, to those who followed. For through Sykes’ extensive research he has been able to pinpoint that most of the folks who live in Europe today share one of seven ancestors–literally. To begin to understand it must be noted that the seven “clusters” (leading back to the seven clan mothers) had ages between 45,000 and 10,000 years.
The clan mother is the most recent maternal ancestor that all the members of a clan have in common. Imagine a clan with ten million living members and imagine that we knew perfectly from the registry of births, marriages and deaths exactly how they are all related. ~ Bryan Sykes
These were women who lived upon the Earth many thousands of years ago, many thousands of years apart from each other. This discovery emerged after Sykes was asked to examine the skeleton of a man found by a couple trekking in Switzerland, thought to be the skeleton of a man lost in the drifts in about 1941. Imagine their surprise when they discovered the skeleton was 5,000 years old! But what is most extraordinary was that Sykes, who happened to have a large database of mtDNA on file for other scientific research, realizes that he happens to know a woman who is related to the 5,000 year old man! And thus began an extraordinary journey and study that ultimately revealed these seven women whose mtDNA was passed along over all those millenia and that could still be recognized and found very relevant today. However what made this information pertinent to me as a gardener was when Sykes begins an in-depth study on answering the question through this new took regarding an age old debate on when agrarian culture was introduced into Europe and by whom. It would be an outright spoiler for me to give you his full conclusion, however, the sheer following of his process fully captivated my imagination as I began (as you can imagine) pondering who the first gardeners were. Who were the first to stop nomadic traditions that entailed bands of human beings following the trails and patterns of wild animals in order to survive? Who was the first to recognize that it might no longer be necessary to gather berries and nuts and roots and leaves from the surrounding terrain, but took it upon themselves to begin gathering seeds instead, planting them nearby, and thus alleviating the necessity of a nomadic existence, whereupon caves were no longer used as shelter, but homes began to be built from what was available? And how and where did humans begin to travel waterways on handmade boats? I found this stunning to reflect upon, and is built upon many years of research into my own family history, ignited by knowing my ggggggggggrandfather came to Massachusetts in the 1630′s. That will do it.
So upon that long research I have begun a longer and deeper and broader look at the human journey and The Seven Daughters of Eve is a splendid introduction! As scientific a tome as this sounds you will be delighted to find eloquent passages about each of the seven women Sykes identifies through their particular pattern of mtDNA. As he is able to tie the mtDNA to specific locales and ages, he draws upon what is known through the disciplines of anthropology and archeology and spins an enchanting story for each of the seven women, whom he names Tara, Helena, Katrine, Xenia, Jasmine, Velda and Ursula. While on the surface it might seem arbitrary or superficial to have done this, I found it both poignant and pragmatic. He has given a voice and name to the actual women who lived on the Earth and who passed along their mtDNA while enveloping them in the actual circumstances in which they most likely lived. Here are a couple examples.
Ursula spent her first year being carried by her mother on the daily round of food gathering. A lot of this took place in the woods close to the spring camp. Spring itself was a lean time, for there were no fruits on the trees yet; the band relied on men to kill at least a few deer or even a bison.
Xenia was born in the wind and snow of late spring. Even though it was already April, the snow that covered the land in winter was still on all but the lowest ground and lay in thick and filthy slush around the camp site. Xenia herself was born in a round hut, about three metres in diameter, whose frame was constructed almost entirely of mammoth bones.
The Seven Daughters of Eve has touched me in a very deep way. I have opened my heart ever wider to those who came before me and carved out in the most courageous ways which I could never fully understand or appreciate a landscape in which I am able to live a life that does not entail living in a cave, needing to domesticate wolves, or going into a forest early in the morning to find food. To some this may sound farfetched. I invite you to consider otherwise by exploring Sykes incredible discoveries. I predict you will not see the world around you in the same way again.
Love and Earthly blessings,
Posted on March 3rd, 2010 by Kathryn
Filed under: Book Notes