I don’t often read about science, but the field of human evolution fascinates me. I find it almost impossible to imagine the sheer expanse of time that has passed between the development of the first modern humans and the present day. It makes my head hurt. Things that seem so important in everyday life suddenly dwindle into nothingness when confronted with the epic story of humanity. But, if you turn the question on its head, you realise that humans really haven’t been around that long at all compared to other species with much longer innings – the dinosaurs, obviously, but even our extinct cousins the Neanderthals. Keep thinking, though, because the really staggering thought is actually the most obvious. Every single one of us alive today has direct ancestors who learned to make fire, who hunted mammoths, who made flint knives. It wasn’t just our general species that descended from these people. You did. I did. If there was a way to trace your family tree back far enough, through the Ice Age and beyond, into a world that looked completely different to the one we know today – if that was possible, you could find out who your ancestors were. Well, it is possible. Bryan Sykes and his fellow geneticists have done it. And this is the story of their work.
Published in 2001, this book captures a moment in the rapidly ‘evolving’ field of ancient genetics, which moves so fast that this book was outdated within ten years. Our understanding of who we are moves in leaps and bounds at the moment, and Sykes’s ferociously readable book only tells part of the story that we now know. But it’s a good one. He begins by explaining the kinds of questions that he gets involved with, through his work as an ancient geneticist. He has carried out research on the mitochondrial DNA of bones discovered near Ekaterinburg in Russia, in order to find out if they could be those of the Romanov family. He headed a team who managed to extract DNA from the Iceman, found in the Italian Alps in 1991 and proven, astonishingly, to be over 5,000 years old. Even more astonishing, Sykes found a direct DNA link between the Iceman and one of his own friends, Marie, an Irishwoman. His success in extracting DNA from unbelievably ancient remains was tested even further by the remains of Cheddar Man, a prehistoric fossil from around 7,000 BC found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge – along with simultaneous research on another fossil from the same cave some 3,000 years older. Once again, Sykes was able to discover a DNA link, this time between Cheddar Man and the local history teacher Adrian Targett (who swiftly became a tabloid favourite, having apparently been offered a large amount of money by The Sun to pose in a fur loincloth; I don’t believe he took them up on the offer).
Sykes worked closely on mapping the DNA of islanders in the Pacific, which enabled him for the first time to confirm the routes their ancestors took in settling the region. That’s astonishing enough. His research had also helped to prove the ‘out of Africa’ theory of human settlement in Europe, which had been an issue of passionate debate in scientific circles. Everyone agreed that early humans had made their way out of Africa around one million years ago, spreading from there to all corners of the world. But they couldn’t agree on what had happened next. Some scholars firmly believed that modern humans in each region had evolved from early humans in that region: thus, that people in Asia were descended from Homo erectus, and that people in Europe were descended from Neanderthals. Sykes and his colleagues were able to show that this wasn’t true. Certainly there had been widespread early human settlement in Europe – amazingly, one of the earliest sites Sykes mentions is Boxgrove near Chichester in West Sussex, where remains have been found of early human settlement from half a million years ago. But these settlements didn’t last, perhaps because an Ice Age was on its way and settlers were either wiped out or pushed back into warmer climes in Southern Europe. When Europe was resettled, it was by a new wave of Homo sapiens (that’s us!), making their way out of Africa anew, some 50,000 years ago. Sykes breaks the news that we are not descended from Neanderthals (and this is proof of the speed of scientific change, because we actually are, very slightly, but this was all discovered after his book was published).
But Sykes’s key discovery, and the focus of this book, is his reconstruction of the European mitochondrial DNA network, after he realised that his research brought up only a limited palette of variations in his European subjects. Mitochondrial DNA is the part of our DNA that is passed down from mother to daughter and it is vitally important because it doesn’t change: it isn’t like normal DNA, where I have a blend of both my parents’ DNA. My mitochondrial DNA will be the same as my mum’s, and that’ll be the same as her mum’s, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. And so it’s the story of mothers and daughters that helps to recreate this amazing story of European evolution (sorry chaps), because by tracing the variations in these relatively short strands of mitochondrial DNA, Sykes was able to map out several groups, encompassing all native Europeans, each of whom could trace back their mitochondrial DNA to a single woman. These are the seven daughters of Eve of the title, who lived between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago in Europe. Sykes points out that obviously he isn’t claiming there were only seven women in Europe at the time; but the mitochondrial DNA profiles of the others haven’t survived. That’s maybe because they only had sons, with no daughters to carry on their mitochondrial DNA, or perhaps they died before they could reproduce, or perhaps they had only one daughter and she had only sons, and so forth. Sykes goes on to imagine the lives of each of these seven women in a series of fictionalised chapters, nevertheless based on his own deep knowledge of these different periods of prehistory. By naming the women and imagining what their daily lives might have been like, he makes these remote figures more accessible and, as a bonus, gives us the story of European civilisation along the way.
I love stuff like this. I’ve always been acutely conscious of genealogy – it’s what comes of being dragged around graveyards on weekends as a child, searching for headstones with our family name on (my dad is the international expert on our surname and has put together a tree of thousands of people across the world). And I’ve always wanted to know where I come from, and to be aware of my place in the greater story. My dad has traced us back to William the Conqueror, but obviously Sykes’s research takes this onto a totally different scale. Obviously I want to know which of the seven daughters I’m descended from! I could take a test from Sykes’s company Oxford Ancestors, but I’m torn between that and 23andme, whose tests can tell you how much Neanderthal you have in your genes (hell yes!). Books like this are great because they emphasise the excitement and adventure of the field – I daresay practicising ancient geneticists would find it all terribly dumbed-down and populist (especially in the fictional chapters devoted to each ‘daughter’), but I think it’s better described as accessible. And Sykes is a darn good writer: he makes you eager to learn more. This book led to me talking excitedly about mitochondrial DNA at dinner parties, for heaven’s sake (and people were actually interested, as far as I could tell). It also led me to read a couple of other science books which carry on the story that Sykes has started here – with particular emphasis on the Neanderthals, another deep and abiding fascination.
Now, I don’t read enough science, because I expect to be daunted by it, but this really hits the sweet spot between history, palaeontology and genetics and, crucially, makes it relevant. So if you’re remotely interested in where you come from, or how we got here, or the big questions of human evolution – which really is the greatest show on earth – then give this a shot. It’s a great starting point, as long as you read it with the understanding that some of Sykes’s conclusions (especially about inbreeding with Neanderthals) have now been disproven. And it’s the kind of expansive, challenging, mind-boggling read that makes you, if only temporarily, look at the world around you in a different way, and to acknowledge yourself as an active participant in the epic human story. To quote from the brilliant film Amistad, ‘I will call into the past [to my ancestors], far back to the beginning of time … I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.’ Just mull that over, if you fancy suddenly feeling a huge sense of responsibility…
I really do need to go back and reread Sapiens, as well as Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. More on the Neanderthals soon…