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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University, has made a startling discovery -- Europeans (barring recent immigrants, of course) are all descended from seven women. His research is based on mitochondrial DNA, similar to the research that announced an African "mitochondrial Eve" as the mother of all modern humans.
Mitochondrial DNA is separate from the DNA we commonly think of and that we inherit from both mother and father. Its purpose is simply to allow cells to function more efficiently, and it is inherited only through the mother's egg. Sykes has been at the forefront of using mitochondrial DNA to solve puzzles about humanity's past. For example, one of his first studies proved that Polynesians have their origin in Asia, not the Americas -- a much more difficult sea voyage (remember the Kon Tiki?). By analyzing the mitochondrial DNA of scores of Europeans, Sykes found that they fell into seven groups (because this DNA does not combine with any other, many people can have exactly the same or very similar mitochondrial DNA). Sykes was even more astounded when he realized that dating the mutations in the DNA revealed that more than 80 percent of current Europeans are descended from the small bands of hunter-gathers who originally came to Europe during the Ice Age -- not from the more "civilized" farmers who came into Europe much later, as was previously thought.
In order to give a sense of the seven ancestral women as real, flesh-and-blood people, Sykes gave them names: Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, and Jasmine. The book contains charming chapters devoted to each in turn, speculating on the life they may have led. This fascinating and illuminating book will intrigue anyone interested in what science can tell us about our human heritage. (Laura Wood)