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!