daughters

Double check that family tree

“Where do I come from?”

Although I’ll read pretty much anything, I generally find myself exploring the world in practically the modern day. A few decades back, a few decades forward, but I generally come back to the early 21st century time and time again. As such, it’s nice to go somewhere completely different occasionally. Forty five thousand years into the past seems far enough.

But this is not a novel. This is a disguised textbook which puts forward the theory (and all the assorted evidence) that 95% of Europeans can trace their ancestry back in a single maternal line to one of seven women who lived some time around the last Ice Age. Sykes gives them the names Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine, and the odds are, if you’re reading this in Europe, one of them is your great-great-great-great…-great-great-grandmother.

Like all good non-fiction though, this doesn’t merely focus on throwing numbers and facts at you. Sure, a basic grasp of genetics is a nice foothold to get going (I at least knew that mitochondrial DNA existed, even if not being exactly sure of what it did), but Sykes writes well and is telling you the story of how he came to make his discovery.

The story spans the globe, from the hunt for the remains of the last royals of Russia, to the tiny Cook Islands in the South Pacific where the secrets of Polynesia’s conquest may be found. Sykes looks at the best preserved human bodies from ancient history, like the Ice Man and Cheddar Man. He really can drag you into his world as you become excited in the way our DNA is passed down from generation to generation, forming an unbroken line not just from the dawn of humanity, but from the dawn of time itself.

The important DNA passes down via the mother, which is why the book is about Eve (the ancestor of all living humans) and her daughters, so any women alive today are the result of an unbroken line of mothers having daughters. If a woman has no children, or only has sons, then her lineage dies out. These family trees could be a lot easier to track if we’d known this back in the day, as our family trees are done up to fit a patriarchial society, with surnames being passed down via the male line, even if the secrets of our past are not.

Towards the end, Sykes takes an interesting decision to imagine the lives of these seven women, the seven women who formed Europe. Each gets a short chapter about what their lives may have been like. Obviously, we have no evidence at all of what the individuals were like, but we can guess using what we know from archaeology. Ursula, for example, lived forty-five thousand years ago and probably travelled with a small band of humans, hunting large animals. At the other end, ten thousand years ago, the most recent clan mother, Jasmine, may well have been one of the first farmers. It’s all speculation, and I know that some reviewers at the time scoffed at this part of the book, dismissing it entirely. I, however, find it quite an interesting addition.

As Sykes says himself, oftentimes we think of the people in the past as completely detatched from us. We talk of the Cro-Magnons and even more modern, the Romans and the Tudors, as if they were a different species to us. However, for us to be here right now, one of our ancestors had to be present for the events of those times. And that’s pretty amazing.

This book reveals just how tiny the chance of your existence was. That you’re here at all is a miracle.

Advertisements