Friday, September 4, 2009

The Seven Daughters of Eve: the iceman telleth

The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes is a book on using DNA to chart human history by the geneticist who was the chief genetic investigator of the Iceman.

The team developed technique for identifying DNA from very old biological samples (typically teeth). The book tells the tale tracing the ancestry—and thus the apparent migration routes—of various human populations, starting with the puzzle of where Pacific Islanders had come from. In particular, tracing mother-daughter lines through mitochrondrial DNA which is passed from mother to daughter.

Sykes is good at explaining the science and recounting his own experiences. The book is highly informative on how genetics can trace human history. Sykes did an internship as a journalist and has a journalist’s eye for the engaging anecdote and the use of personal interest angles (such as controversies between scientists).

Sykes was also involved in identifying the remains of the Romanovs, which makes a great little DNA who-was-it.

The central idea of the book is the identification of seven “clan mothers” from whom the entire European population is descended—hence the title of the book. Seven chapters are devoted to invented biographies of the “clan mothers”. These are a bit twee and somewhat sanitised.

The major scientific controversy in the book is the conclusion from the study of the genetic origins of Europeans that the neolithic farmers largely intermarried with the existing paleolithic hunter-gatherers rather than supplanting them as Cavalli-Sforza argued. There has been some tendency for genetic research to discover intermarriage rather than one population supplanting another.

Apart from being an engaging story of scientific controversy—which Sykes and his team won when Cavalli-Sforza conceded that the neolithic farmers were responsible for about 26% of the genetic base of the European population—this section was of particular interest to me since the Rulers and Subjects presentation I developed incorporated Cavalli-Sforza’s claim of farmers supplanting hunter-gatherers (which certainly has been the pattern elsewhere—such as Australia). The rate of the spread of farming across Europe was still very slow, so one suspects that pressure from farmers may have driven the hunter-gatherers to take up farming in self-defence.

But that is much of the fun of the growing use of DNA to expand our understanding of our history. Before the Dawn is a more broadly informative book than Seven Daughters, not least because Sykes’ shares the contemporary academic tendency to be a bit rose-tinted about the violent bits of the early human story. Even so, Seven Daughters is a fun and informative read.

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