When my wife had a significant birthday several years ago, my gift to her was a DNA test. I’m an incorrigible romantic. Seriously, it was what she most wanted. Almost a decade later, she returned the favour and bought me one. It turns out we are related. We’ve got the same mother.
All of us.
This is actually true. The mother of all mothers actually existed.
The story of my enlightenment in this respect is circuitous. I was contemplating commencing work on the text of a musical for the students of the College where I worked. I’d mis-heard a radio newsreader during a breakfast broadcast. He’d said “climate change” but I had heard “primate change”.
“That’ll do for next year’s musical,” I thought, and set about conducting some research. Knowing how closely humans are related to other ape species triggered the main thrust of my inquiry. The similarities that emerged between ourselves and bonobos meant that I decided to not discriminate between human and non-human apes when compiling the plot. The anthropological section of the college library contained a book by Oxford Professor of Human Genetics Bryan Sykes entitled The Seven Daughters of Eve. It’s a bone-cracking read.
Sykes explains how we can all trace our ancestry right back to a single female human. She wasn’t the first human female, but she is responsible for all of us. She lived in Africa about 150 000 years ago when modern human primates numbered perhaps as few as two thousand individuals. All six billion plus humans alive today are her matrilineal descendants. Every single one of us.
It’s all a matter of mitochondrial DNA. This can only be passed on by female humans. If a woman does not give birth, or only has male offspring, her mitochondrial DNA comes to an end. Furthermore, if her female descendants satisfy that criteria, then her matrilineal heritage is terminated. Sooner or later this happened to the all the females alive 150 000 years ago except for one. That one is the mother of us all.
Examining our mitochondrial DNA shows, not unexpectedly, that as the investigation tracks back through time the historical lines become fewer. This process continues all the way back through human evolution. As Professor Sykes explains:
Incredibly, even though the African clans are easily the most ancient in the world, we are still able to reconstruct genetic relationships among them. One by one the clans converge until there is only one ancestor, the mother of all of Africa and of the rest of the world. We are all her direct maternal descendants.
This person is known as Mitochondrial Eve. It’s not her real name.
My wife and I both read the book and were equally thrilled by it, hence our craving to see exactly how we fit in with the original and ancient world wide web. Sykes identifies thirty-six pivotal ancient women but the book concentrates on the seven whose progeny form the majority of Europeans. They are not Eve’s immediate offspring – they lived at different times and at different places. He describes their probable lifestyles, and while those details are embellished imaginatively, the contexts thus presented add a pictorial richness to appreciating the overwhelming challenges they faced.
A company called Oxford Ancestors offered a DNA test to determine which of those seven a modern individual is most likely to be descended from. In my wife’s case it was ‘Helena’ who lived twenty thousand years ago during the last Ice Age. She lived on the south coast of France where the river Rhone meets the Mediterranean Sea, west of Marseilles. The coast was further south in those days due to so much water being locked up in ice, but global warming was on the way. Nothing changes.
The DNA test provided us with certificates showing where we belonged on ‘the golden thread’ of Eve’s matrilineal web. It tells you whose ‘clan’ you are in. It turns out I’m descended from ‘Helena’ too. It’s not surprising. She is the most prolific of the European clan mothers.
My wife and I have taken holidays in the south of France twice. It’s the only place outside of the UK to which we have returned. We thought it was the food, the ambience and the weather. It turns out we were going home.
Primate Change – to quote a not entirely approving college senior manager – was a fun production. She was right. It was. We all had a lot of fun. But she may have missed the intended serious edge. Or she may not. Always one to rattle cages rather than build them, I was keen to kick back against what I felt was a growing wave of elitism close to home, and a rising surge of a sense of superiority disguised as patriotism in the national and global communities.
We should continually remind each other that, despite its individual variations, we all have the same core DNA. We all have the same mother. It’s a crying shame when we throw the toys out of the clan. Especially when we aim them at the neighbouring one.
The story of Mitochondrial Eve should be a compulsory element of all school curricula. It is a creation narrative that is not challenged by scientific inquiry, on the contrary it was created, and is confirmed, by it.
I don’t talk to the ancestors much, but I think about my mitochondrial mum quite a lot. On Mother’s Day I wrote her a story and put her in it.
She’ll never read it.
Some of her children will.
Mitochondrial Eve dances with Nelson Mandela in chapter three of Strictly Done Dancing. He narrates the encounter:
She reached out and placed her hand in mine. I could feel the hard life she had known in the roughness of her fingers, but they did not feel old. A hundred and fifty thousand years passed from her grip to mine. I gently squeezed my gratitude.
She allowed me to take her other hand, and then, with barely a flinch, she let me slip my hand to press the dashiki gently against her shoulder blade. I inhaled her natural aroma. She smelt of children.
Available from: Strictly Done Dancing paperback
This line of research also fuelled one of the more surreal parts of the dystopian novel Ice & Lemon. The protagonist, Dan, falls into freezing water, loses consciousness and starts dreaming:
My mother waved from one room that we passed.
“Ah, Mum. There you are.”
She smiled her radiant, unconditional, all-forgiving smile, sipped almost milk-less tea from china and tucked into butterfly cakes. She passed the cake stand to her mother who removed a Maid of Honour before passing the stand on to her mother, who passed it to her mother, and there were all my mothers, a hall of mothers and a table of cakes and tea all the way back to where the fruitcake had no cake and was only fruitful.
I lingered at the door and contemplated a million maternal conversations but Claire said, “Mothers only. Come along.” And my wife was my mother and I must obey till death us do reunite. We walked on.
eBook or new paperback from: Ice & Lemon.
There were reports early in 2018 that Oxford Ancestors was considering closure due to regulation changes in the UK but, happily, this did not happen. They now provide paternal and tribal ancestry tests in addition to the maternal one. Their website: Oxford Ancestors
 B. Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve, Corgi, 2002, Page 336