One presumes the presence of a few good men, also!

Modern Europeans Descended
From A Small Group Of Women

By Bryan Sykes
Professor Bryan Sykes 2001
The Sunday Times - London

This is the scientific detective story of the age. Professor Bryan Sykes tells how he and his colleagues discovered that modern Europeans are descended from only a handful of women - the Seven Daughters of Eve. Are you by any chance related? ___  Where do I come from? How often have you asked yourself that question? We may know our parents, even our grandparents; not far beyond that, for most of us, the trail begins to disappear into the mist. But each of us carries a message from our ancestors in every cell of our body.  It is in our DNA, the genetic material that is handed down from generation to generation. Within the DNA is written not only our histories as individuals but the whole history of the human race. With the aid of recent advances in genetic technology, this history is now being revealed.  We are at last able to begin to decipher the messages from the past. Our DNA does not fade like an ancient parchment; it does not rust in the ground like the sword of a warrior long dead. It is not eroded by wind or rain, nor reduced to ruin by fire and earthquake. It is a traveller from an antique land who lives within us all.  The history of our species, homo sapiens, is recorded in the genes that trace our ancestry back into the deep past, way beyond the reach of written records or stone inscriptions. These genes tell a story that begins more than 100,000 years ago and whose latest chapters are hidden within the cells of every one of us.  As a practising scientist, I am very lucky to have been around at the right time and able to take an active part in this wonderful journey into the past that modern genetics now permits. I have found DNA in skeletons thousands of years old and seen exactly the same genes in my own friends. And I have discovered that, to my astonishment, we are all connected through our mothers to only a handful of women living tens of thousands of years ago.  MY PART in this story began in the 1980s at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, where I am a professor of genetics. The institute is part of Oxford University, though geographically and temperamentally removed from the arcane world of the college cloisters. It is full of doctors and scientists who are working away applying the new technologies of genetics and molecular biology to the field of medicine.  I am based at the institute because I used to work on inherited diseases of the skeleton, in particular on a horrible condition known as brittle bone disease. Babies born with the most severe form of this disease sometimes have bones so weak that, when they take their first breath, all the ribs fracture and they suffocate and die.  It was through this work that, in 1986, I came to meet Robert Hedges, who runs the carbon dating laboratory for archeological samples in Oxford. Carbon dating involves measuring the decay of minute traces of naturally radioactive carbon atoms within remains. Robert had been thinking about ways of getting more information from the bones that passed through his lab by pioneering a complex genetic process. He and I put together a research proposal.  We also advertised for research assistants - but got no response at all. This meant we had to put back the start of the project by a year. The delay proved to be a blessing in disguise - because, by the time the project got going, a scientist in California called Kary Mullis had dreamt up a way of making our work much easier. Mullis's brainwave meant we could "amplify" in a test tube tiny amounts of DNA taken from old bones. We also had a research assistant called Erika Hagelberg. She was the only applicant. All we needed now was the bones.  News came in during 1988 of an excavation in Abingdon, a few miles south of Oxford. A new supermarket was going up and the diggers had ploughed into a medieval cemetery. The local archeology service had been given two months to excavate the site before developers moved back in.  Several skeletons lay half-exposed in the bright sunshine, encrusted with orange-brown earth. Our prospects didn't look good: DNA samples in the laboratory were always deeply frozen because everyone believed they would be destroyed if they thawed.  We were allowed to take away three thigh bones. We cut out small segments of bone with a hacksaw, froze them in liquid nitrogen, smashed them up into a powder, then soaked the powder in a chemical that slowly took out the calcium over several days. This left a grey sludge. We guessed this was proteins, bits of cells, maybe some fat - and, we hoped, a few molecules of DNA.  We got rid of the protein using an enzyme that digests it, rather like the ones in a biological washing powder. Then we got rid of the fat with chloroform. We cleaned what was left with phenol, a revolting liquid that is the base for carbolic soap. What remained was a teaspoonful of pale brown fluid that, theoretically at least, should contain the DNA - if there was any.  There would be at best only a few molecules, so we had to use Mullis's new DNA amplification reaction to boost the yield. We had to decide which gene to amplify and chose something called mitochondrial DNA. This turned out to have special properties that make it absolutely ideal for reconstructing the past; but in the first instance we chose it simply because there was so much more of it than any other type of DNA. Cells have upwards of a hundred times more of it than any other gene.  So, into the reaction went all the chemical ingredients necessary for amplifying mitochondrial DNA, plus a few drops of the precious bone extract. To get the reaction to fire in the tube you need to boil it, cool it, warm it up for a couple of minutes; then boil it again, cool it, warm it up . . . and go on repeating this cycle at least 20 times.  Modern genetics laboratories are full of machines for doing this reaction automatically. But not then. Back in the 1980s the only machine on the market cost a fortune, and there was no money for one in our budget.  The only way to do the reaction was to sit with a stopwatch in front of three water baths, one boiling, one cold and one warm, and move the test tube by hand from one bath to the next every three minutes. Then do it again. And again. For 3 hours.  I only tried it once. The reaction didn't work and I was bored stiff. There had to be a better way. What about using an electric kettle? I spent the next three weeks with wires, timers, thermostats, relays, copper tubing, a washing machine valve and my kettle from home. In the end I had a device that did all the right things. It boiled. It cooled. And it warmed up. And it worked.  We could see that the machine (christened the Genesmaid, after the tea-making device) had managed to get the amplification reaction to work not only with a control experiment using modern DNA but also, very faintly, with the Abingdon bone extract. By comparing its "sequence" - fingerprint of DNA - to those published in scientific papers, it didn't take us long to prove that the DNA was genuinely human. We had done it. Here, in front of our very eyes, was the DNA of someone who had died hundreds of years ago. It was DNA resurrected, literally, from the grave.  Looking back, it is hard for me to believe that the research set in motion by the recovery of DNA from those crumbling bones in the Abingdon cemetery - the bones that looked so unpromising when I first saw them half-buried in the earth - should lead over the following years to such profound conclusions about the history and soul of our species.  Like most scientific research, this was not a seamless progression towards a well-defined goal. It was more like a series of short hops, each driven as much by opportunity, personal relationships, financial necessity and even physical injury as by any rational strategy. The research just moved, a little bit at a time, mostly forwards, towards the next dimly visible goal, informed by what had gone before but ignorant of what lay ahead.  At the time, though our result was a great triumph, strangely enough it didn't feel like it. I think Erika and I were too heavily involved in the details to appreciate the significance of what we had achieved. Besides, by then we were not getting on at all well.  Tension had been building for weeks because, for some reason, Erika and I did not seem to be working together effectively. Our ways would part, and many years later Erika and I would clash when she challenged the scientific validity of my work.  The next breakthrough after Abingdon man came on a sunny day in September 1991 when two German climbers descending the 11,500ft Finailspitze in the Italian Alps strayed into a gully. Sticking out of the melting ice was the body of a man. What looked like an old-fashioned ice pick lay nearby.  The climbers assumed it was the body of a mountaineer who had fallen into a crevasse perhaps 10 years previously. Only days later did it dawn on everybody that this body was not tens or even hundreds but thousands of years old.  The withered and desiccated remains of the Iceman, as he soon came to be known, were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck, Austria, where he was stored, frozen, while an international team of scientists was assembled to carry out a minute examination.  Since my research team in Oxford had been the first in the world to recover traces of DNA from ancient human bones, I was called in to see whether we could find any in the Iceman. It was the opportunity to become involved in such thrilling discoveries that had persuaded me to veer away from my career as a regular medical geneticist into this completely new field of science, which some of my colleagues regarded as a bizarre and eccentric diversion of no conceivable use or consequence.  Carbon dating placed the Iceman between 5,000 and 5,350 years old. Even though this was much older than any human remains I had worked with before, I was very optimistic that there was a good chance of success, because the body had been deep-frozen in ice, away from the destructive forces of water and oxygen which, slowly but surely, destroy DNA. The material we had to work with had been put in a small screw-capped jar of the sort used for pathology specimens. It looked awfully unremarkable: a sort of grey mush.  When Martin Richards, my research assistant at the time, and I opened the jar and started to pick through the contents with a pair of forceps, it seemed to be a mixture of skin and fragments of bone. Still, though it might not have been much to look at, there was no obvious sign that it had begun to decompose.  Sure enough, back in the lab in Oxford, when we put the small fragments of bone through the extraction process that had succeeded with other ancient samples, we did find DNA, and plenty of it.  In due course we published our findings in Science, the leading US scientific journal. We had got exactly the same DNA "sequence" - the DNA equivalent of a fingerprint - from the Iceman as a team from Munich. We had both shown that the DNA was clearly European by finding precisely the same sequence in DNA samples taken from living Europeans.  There were a number of press inquiries following the publication of our scientific article about the Iceman, and I found myself explaining how we had proved his European credentials. It was Lois Rogers from The Sunday Times who asked the crucial question.  "You say you found exactly the same DNA in modern Europeans. Well, who are they?" she inquired, in a tone that told me she expected me to know the answer straight away.  "What do you mean, who are they? They are from our collection of DNA samples from all over Europe."  "Yes, but who?" persisted Lois.  "I have no idea. We keep the identities of the donors on a separate file, and anyway, samples are always given on the basis of a strict undertaking of confidentiality."  After Lois rang off, I switched on my computer just to see which samples matched up with the Iceman. LAB 2803 was one of them, and the prefix "LAB" meant it was either from someone working in the laboratory or from a visitor or friend. When I checked against the database of the volunteers, I could scarcely believe my luck.  LAB 2803 was Marie Moseley, an Irish friend. This could only mean one thing. Marie was a relative of the Iceman. For reasons which I shall explain, there had to be an unbroken genetic link between Marie and the Iceman's mother, stretching back more than 5,000 years and faithfully recorded in the DNA.  Marie, a management consultant, lives just outside Bournemouth. Though not a scientist herself, she has an insatiable curiosity about genetics and had donated a couple of strands of her long red hair in the cause of science. She is articulate, outgoing and witty, and I was sure she could handle any publicity. When I rang to ask if she would mind if I gave her name to The Sunday Times she agreed at once, and the next edition carried a piece under the headline "Iceman's relative found in Dorset".  One of the strangest and, at first, surprising things about this story is that Marie began to feel something for the Iceman. She had seen pictures of him being shunted around from glacier to freezer to post-mortem room, poked and prodded, opened up, bits cut off. To her, he was no longer just the anonymous curiosity whose picture had appeared in the papers and on television. She had started to think of him as a real person and as a relative, which is exactly what he was.  I became fascinated by the sense of connection Marie felt. It began to dawn on me that, if Marie could be genetically linked to someone long dead, so could everyone else. Perhaps we only needed to look around us, at people alive today, to unravel the mysteries of the past.  Most of my archeologist friends found this proposition completely foreign. They had been brought up to believe that one could understand the past only by studying the past; modern people were of no interest. Yet I was sure that, if DNA was inherited intact for hundreds of generations over thousands of years, as I had shown by connecting Marie and the Iceman, then individuals alive today were as reliable a witness to past events as any bronze dagger or fragment of pottery.  It seemed to me absolutely essential to widen my research to cover modern people. Only when much more was known about the DNA of living people could I hope to put the results from human fossils into any sort of context. So I set out to discover as much as possible about the DNA in present-day Europeans and people from many other parts of the world, knowing that whatever I found would have been delivered to us direct from their ancestors. The past is within us all.  My research over the intervening decade has shown that almost everyone living in Europe can trace an unbroken genetic link, of the same kind that connects Marie to the Iceman, to one of only seven women. These seven women are the direct maternal ancestors of virtually all 650m modern Europeans. I was able to estimate how long ago, and approximately where, all seven women had lived.  As soon as I gave them names - Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine - they came to life. I know I am a descendant of Tara, and I want to know about her and her life. I feel I have something in common with her, more so than I do with the others.  I reckon that Tara lived in northern Italy about 17,000 years ago. Europe was in the grip of the last Ice Age, and the only parts of the continent where human life was possible were in the far south. Then, the Tuscan hills were a very different place. No vines grew; no bougainvillea decorated the farmhouses. The hillsides were thickly forested with pine and birch. The streams held small trout and crayfish, which helped Tara to raise her family and held the pangs of hunger at bay when the menfolk failed to kill a deer or wild boar.  As the Ice Age loosened its grip, Tara's children moved round the coast into France and joined the great band of hunters who followed the big game across the tundra that was northern Europe. Eventually, Tara's children walked across the dry land that was to become the English Channel and moved right across to Ireland. Today just over 9% of native Europeans are in the clan of Tara, living along the Mediterranean and the western edge of Europe. They are particularly numerous in the west of Britain and Ireland.  Our most distant ancestor among the Seven Daughters of Eve was Ursula (see panel), who lived 45,000 years ago. Xenia, a fair-haired girl from the north European plains 25,000 years ago, was the direct ancestor of not only 6% of modern Europeans but also about 1% of native Americans. Helena, who lived at the mouth of the River Rhone 20,000 years ago, was the clan mother of 47% of modern Europeans. Velda, an inhabitant of northwest Spain 17,000 years ago, was clan mother of about 5% of native Europeans. About 6% are descended from Katrine, who lived 2,000 years later in a great plain now covered by the northern Adriatic. One of her intermediate descendants was the Iceman.  The seventh daughter of Eve, Jasmine, lived near the River Euphrates after the Ice Age. Her descendants, 17% of native Europeans, are particularly common in Cornwall, Wales and the west of Scotland.  Amazingly, we all carry this history in our genes, patterns of DNA that have come down to us virtually unchanged from our distant ancestors - ancestors who are no longer just an abstract entity but real people who lived in conditions very different from those we enjoy today, who survived them and brought up their children.  Our genes were there. They have come down to us over the millennia. They have travelled over land and sea, through mountain and forest. All of us, from the most powerful to the weakest, from the fabulously wealthy to the miserably poor, carry in our cells the survivors of these fantastic journeys - our genes. We should be very proud of them.   Professor Bryan Sykes 2001  Extracted from The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes to be published by Bantam Press on June 7 at 18.99. Copies can be ordered for 16.99 from The Sunday Times Books Direct on 0870 165 8585; Professor Sykes will lecture at The Sunday Times Hay Festival on May 29 at 2.30pm. Festival office: 01497 821 299 or His own website is