Month: November 2019

The Devil is in the Detail

Details, Details, Details

Critical Lens: In his book, Bryan Sykes does a lot of good things (see, “What’s the Verdict”), however, his book is far (and I mean far) from perfect. First of all, the title makes me cringe: for a book that only explores the origins of Europeans, it seems awfully problematic that the title be called the The Seven Daughters of Eve, as if there were only seven important women rearing our ancestry. Additionally, Sykes has a bit of a condescending tone in his descriptions of his contemporaries and even his team members. He also incorporates a plethora of speculative claims and anecdotes throughout the book (aside from his seven daughters imagination tangent), which if you are not careful, can be misleading. An example of this is throughout his discussion of the Polynesian people and their origins. Although he genetically proves their relatedness to Asia rather than South America, he goes on to narrate the sequence of events that led to their movement from Asia to the Polynesian islands. Except, instead of writing this in a way that clarifies his reliance on speculation, Sykes writes as if he just finished reading a detailed history of the Polynesians. Furthermore, Sykes has brief moments of head-shaking disappointment, such as when he describes the discovery and analysis of DNA and gives all the credit to none other than Watson and Crick, rather than also citing Rosalind Franklin. Lastly, it would not be unreasonable to question why Sykes transitioned to a heavily fictional style for the final third of the book. After all, it is supposed  to be nonfiction and, quite honestly, usually when someone chooses to read a nonfiction book, it is because they want to read…well, nonfiction. Aside from these issues, Sykes really does do a good job. None of his claims or descriptions, to the best of my knowledge, are blatantly false or incorrect, and he supports his conclusions with, you guessed it, research!

What did I learn? 

Oh boy, did I learn a lot. Having taken a few years-worth of Biology curriculum in high school and now college, much of the first third of Sykes book offered me little more than a basic recap of the concepts that I have learned over and over again since high school Biology. However, throughout the middle third of the book, I began learning all sorts of things. For example, I learned about what a scientific research process looks like in action, play-by-play, from the genesis of an idea to the defense of a conclusion. I found myself engulfed in Sykes’ anecdotal stories of the Polynesians, the last Tsar, and the Neanderthals. Pretty much everything Sykes discussed regarding the former two subjects was news to me, and although I had already learned about Neanderthals, I still managed to learn a thing or two. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned about how modern Europeans can each trace their ancestry back to one of seven women. This, in my opinion, is absolutely remarkable and quite simply brilliant, and I really do feel all the better for coming away with this knowledge.

What more?

In outlining Sykes’ journey in discovering the “seven daughters” of Europe, I really think that this book accomplished its goal. However, it ultimately leaves me wondering: what about the rest of the world? How many “clans” can be attributed to Africa or Asia? And how different does their mitochondrial DNA look from modern European DNA? 

Should YOU read it?

  1. If you are curious about or interested in the thrill of cutting edge, novel research but are by no means an expert nor intend on becoming an expert, you would probably really like this book. The book offers a very digestible story-like structure following Sykes fascinating research into European ancestry. It never becomes too technical nor does it ever set out to cover every single, and yet it still offers a heaping serving of science!
  2. If you hate science, on the other hand…start liking it, and then read this book!
  3. If you are simply interested in the age-old question of “what is my origin,” you would also probably get a lot out of this book (well, unless you are anything other than European…yikes). Why, you ask? Well, because the book is literally about European ancestry. Please tell me you read at least some of my website.
  4. If you love some good ‘ol realistic fiction, read the last third of this book. It’s fiction, but based on a little bit of nonfiction: amazing!

What’s the Verdict?

The Review

Title: The Seven Daughters of Eve

Author: Bryan Sykes

Genre: Biological Anthropology

Audience: General Audience; Adult; Science Enthusiasts

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes presents himself as the protagonist in an undeniably remarkable quest for ancestral closure. Well, at least for Europeans (sorry, everyone else). Sykes appropriately begins his epic narrative by going over the very basics. He explains DNA, basic inheritance, and mitochondrial DNA in as simplistic and clear manner as a person with a PhD probably can. Honestly, he does a pretty good job of doing this, taking what feels like a majority of the book laying out the very basics so that, as the bits and pieces of his complex intellectual narrative begin to become more and more difficult to follow, there is no confusion on the reader’s part. 

Sykes next goes into what seems to be a five-chapter-long pat-on-the-back as he recounts how he uncovered the long-disputed origins of the Polynesian people, aided in solving the great mystery of the last Russian Tsar, and triumphantly concluded that Neanderthals did, indeed, go extinct. However egotistic it might have seemed in the moment, in retrospect, these anecdotes importantly served to clarify how Sykes and his team were able to arrive at their peak accomplishment: the origins of all Europeans.

The book then takes a turn, narrating the contentious process of discovery and backlash in science. Sykes, eager to make his discovery known, is met with opposition from a handful of particularly stubborn researchers in the field of paleoanthropology. Were multi-regionalists right or those who swore by the replacement theory? Did the Neanderthals and all of the other early human species get overrun by farmers or hunter-gatherers? Were the first modern human inhabitants of Europe paleolithic hunter-gatherers or neolithic farmers? And, as we arrive at the climax of uncertainty in Sykes’ life-long research: is mitochondrial DNA even reliable? 

Ultimately, Sykes and his discovery remains unscathed by opposition as he systematically disproves each objection that arises. Modern Europeans, Sykes finally concludes, can trace their origins back to only seven women, ranging from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago. Six of these seven women were of the upper-paleolithic hunter-gatherers, while only one came from neolithic farmers. Sykes goes on to name these seven women, and, in a rather odd turn of events, endeavors to imagine what the lives of each one of these women looked like. Although this last portion of the book more clearly falls along the categorization of fiction rather than nonfiction, I simply cannot bring myself to say that this section was entirely pointless; maybe because I ended up really enjoying the infusion of imagination. Nonetheless, Sykes wraps up his great narrative and storytelling by reflecting on the remarkable nature of the human story, which obviously extends far greater than just the seven women whose lineages extended through generation upon generation of daughters until present day. Sykes reminds us that interspersed among these seven women and all of their descendents were other women, families, and dynasties that simply did not extend to the present day. Furthermore, in spite of the misleading title, there are a whole lot more than just seven clans and women to which humans can trace their ancestry. 

Sykes ultimately concludes his book in a sentimental tone, noting that knowledge like this makes nonsense of the meaningless racial classifications that humans tend to box each other into. And, despite its rather ‘chemical’ nature, DNA actually does a pretty darn good job of reconnecting us to the great mysteries of our past and enhancing our collective sense of self. 

Overall, not a bad read. Maybe you should give it a try!

Mapping European Ancestry

Sykes’ Diagram

Behold: the ancestral networks through which Sykes and his research team diagramed the seven “clan mothers” of all Europeans. Note, however, that this graphic was made for someone named “Roberta Estes,” who is (presumably) someone who had her mitochondrial DNA tested in order to discern her own ancestral origin. Apparently, her ancestry can be traced back to “Jasmine,” the most recent of the clan mothers.

Theoretically, any European could have her or his mitochondrial DNA sequencing and analyzed in order to situate their origin in one of the seven clans. Each of the seven circles represents a specific mitochondrial DNA sequence persevered over thousands of years via maternal inheritance, and the size of the circles represent the proportion of Europeans who share each sequence. Each line represents mutations, or differences, between the sequences that they connect, and the distances separating any two circles is proportional to the number of mutations separating each sequence. The dashed line between Ursula and Xenia indicates an “even deeper genealogy through which our species, Homo sapiens, is connected to the other, extinct, humans, the Neanderthals and Homo erectus, and eventually back to the common ancestor of humans and other primates” (275). Pretty AWESOME, in my opinion…

Piecing it All Together

Over several years, Sykes and his team managed to obtain hundreds of DNA samples from Europeans all throughout the continent. By sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of each individual (sequencing refers to the process by which the individual base pairs making up the genetic code are parsed out), Sykes and his team were able to obtain side-by-side comparisons of each individual’s mitochondrial genetic code. Based on these side-by-side comparisons, he was then able to draw ancestral lineages.

But how? It all has to do with mutations, or changes in the individual segments of the DNA that simply appear as variations. Although perhaps obvious, unlike the hamster mitochondrial DNA, the sequences of the human samples varied—in the hundreds of bits and pieces of the mitochondrial control regions from all his European samples, Sykes and his team would find, one, two, or maybe eight, at most, differences (mutations) among all of the samples. It was ultimately based off of these differences that Sykes constructed his family trees. Except, what Sykes found was that these family trees didn’t resemble trees at all. Instead, Sykes found himself drawing groups—clans, as Sykes called them—of different mitochondrial sequences that more closely resembled networks than anything else. Sure enough, seven clans gradually became clearer and clearer. At the center of them? Seven sequences, each representing a different maternal ancestor whose mitochondrial DNA has persisted for tens of thousands of years through hundreds of generations of women (See “Mapping European Ancestry”). Sykes would go on to successfully defend the legitimacy of his claims against all sorts of skeptics, before endeavoring to name and imagine the lives of each of these seven women.

Enter the Seven Daughters of Eve: Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, and Jasmine.

Hamsters, Mitochondria, and DNA, Oh My!

Bryan Sykes’ research into the origins of modern Europeans relies almost entirely on the inheritance patterns of mitochondrial DNA. Going to great lengths in order to be clear and thorough, Sykes spends much of the first half of his book detailing how and why mitochondrial DNA proved to be the saving grace of his research.

In the early years of his research, in “one of those rare moments when an idea suddenly arrives from the recesses of the mind,” Sykes remembered that he had once read that all of the pet golden hamsters in the world were descendents of only one female (57). Sykes also knew that, unlike nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents and undergoes all sorts of mixing, mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from the mother. This would mean, he concluded, that if he were to theoretically test hundreds of pet hamsters, they would, save for perhaps a single mutation here and there, have identical mitochondrial DNA sequences. 

Thus, Sykes set out to examine the control regions (relatively stable regions of DNA) of hundreds of different pet hamsters, hoping to see little to no variation among them. Sure enough, the control region of the mitochondrial DNA remained completely stable—”from that very first hamster captured in the Syrian desert to its millions of great-great-great…great-grandchildren from every corner of the world, the control region DNA had been copied absolutely faithfully with not even a single mistake” (61-62).

Considering that Sykes’ ultimate goal was to examine the genetic lineage of over 150,000 years of human evolution, the mitochondrial control region offered the perfect model through which he could do exactly this!

It was using this method that Sykes uncovered the origin of the Polynesian people back to Asia rather than South America and ultimately, the ancestors of modern Europeans.


The final  and most recent of the seven remarkable women was Jasmine. Unlike every other clan, the descendents of Jasmine came from a long like of farmers. This is also the clan from which Sykes’ opponents had (partially) incorrectly claimed had overrun Europe. Sykes imagines Jasmine’s band having developed one of the first systems of agriculture, which, one thousand years after Jasmine, has spread all over eastern Europe. Today, just under 17 percent of modern Europeans are direct maternal descendents of Jasmine.

Time Period: 10,000 years ago

Band Type: Farmers

Climate: Much warmer—with the Great Ice Age officially over, temperatures rapidly climbed towards present-day levels

Ancient Location: Syria, along the Euphrates River

Modern Location: Unlike the other clans, descendents of Jasmine are not evenly dispersed across Europe. Descendents of Jasmine are found along the Mediterranean coast from Spain to Portugal, western Britain, Whaleys, western Scotland, and throughout northern Europe


The second most recent clan mother turned out to be Katrine. Aside from provided a somewhat superficial description of Katrine, Sykes manages to work in the beginning of humankind’s greatest interspecies relationship: dogs. He actually does a really good job of working in a believable example of wolves joining bands of hunter-gatherers into Katrine’s narrative. Other than this, we know that about 6 percent of modern Europeans are direct maternal descendents of Katrine. Sykes also makes sure to note that, ten thousand years following the life of Katrine, one of here direct descendents died crossing the Alps—that descendent was the corpse that Sykes was called to examine thousands of years after his death, “Iceman.”

Time Period: 15,000 years ago

Band Type: Hunter-Gatherer

Climate: Warmer

Ancient Location: Northern Italy

Modern Location: Modern descendents of Katrine are well represented along the Mediterranean, but also found all throughout Europe


Sykes presents Tara’s existence as more labored and difficult in comparison to the first four daughters. The warmer temperatures of northern Italy, he explains, meant that the landscape was heavily wooded; instead of tundra animals, there were red deer and wild boar, which were hard and dangerous to hunt. As a result of this ‘poverty,’ the growth in artistic expression and social behaviors in bands such as Tara’s were stifled, and groups were constantly on the move. In this chapter, Sykes presents a reasonably believable narrative recounting how Tara’s tribe incidentally discovered boats. According to Sykes, just over 9 percent of modern Europeans are direct maternal descendents of Tara.

Time Period: 17,000 years ago

Band Type: Hunter-Gatherer

Climate: Even warmer

Ancient Location: Northwest Italy

Modern Location: Modern descendents of Tara are numerous west of Britain and in Ireland, and also along the Mediterranian and the western edge of Europe.


Velda, or at least her imagined person, is my favorite of the seven daughters. Sykes describes a strong woman who defied expectations when she chose to not mate with another “man” after her previous mate’s tragic death, instead working harder herself to support her three children and the rest of her band. Indeed, the most imaginative, the picture of Velda is ultimately unclear. However, what we can be certain of is that, today, approximately 5 percent of Europeans are direct maternal descendents of Velda.

Time Period: 17,000 years ago

Band Type: Hunter-Gatherer

Climate: Warmer than at the peak of the Ice Age (20,000 years ago), but still very cold

Ancient Location: Northern Spain

Modern Location: Modern descendents of Velda are found throughout western Europe, with a few descendents in Finland and northern Norway.


The third of the seven women was Helena. During her spotlight, Sykes takes time to imagine extensive tool making, including knives, scrapers, spear points, spear throwers, and sewing needles. It is also in this chapter that we get the first mention of cave art and ceremonies. Sykes describes the clan of Helena as becoming among the most prolific, reaching every part of the continent. Furthermore, Sykes notes that the Helena sequence serves as the “reference sequence” to which all mitochondrial mutations are compared (and for some reason, I have a feeling that Helena is his favorite). Approximately 47 percent of modern Europeans are direct maternal descendents of Helena.

Time Period: 20,000 years ago

Band Type: Hunter-Gatherer

Climate: Freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall: the height of the Ice Age.

Ancient Location: Southwest France

Modern Location: Modern descendents of Helena are well represented all throughout Europe