Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Seven Daughters of Eve

I finished this book in two nights...

A friend of mine asked me years ago (perhaps almost ten years ago) whether I had read a book called “The Seven Daughters of Eve”. I said, I haven’t. And apparently, I would still not read it had I not visited a small second hand bookshop in Devonport, north of Auckland, last weekend. I love second hand bookshops; you’ll never know what treasure you find in such a shop. Two Christmases ago I found “Ashoka” by... in such a shop in Hobart Tasmania; I finished the book during the year end holiday. This time, I finished The Seven Daughters of Eve in two nights. I got vertigo afterwards; a combination of holiday flu and reading in poorly-lit environment inside the airplane (not a good thing for my eyesight...). But despite all that, I certainly cannot ignore the a swirling notion of DNA, mtDNA, Y-chromosome, anthropogenesis, Ice Age and so on and so forth. Despite my hammering vertigo, I cannot shake off the notion that The Seven Daughters of Eve (or 7DE) truly woke me up of my very long ignorant sleep about the origin of humans. Or Homo sapiens, as we know it. And why I should respect the early explorers, the “Out of Africa” bands who traveled where no one had gone before.

In essence, the Seven Daughters of Eve is about how each European can trace back their maternal line to one of the seven pre-historic women who lived from 45,000 years ago (Ursula) to about 10,000 years ago (Jasmine). Mind you tho: the book doesn’t say that the seven women were the ultimate, or the first women ever living on Earth. These seven women were not the first seven women on Earth. They had mothers too; their mothers had grandmothers too. But Skyes et al were not able to trace back the maternal lines of Ursula et al using mtDNA, for mtDNA is passed from mothers to daughters, and Ursula’s past maternal line was already broken (Ursula's mother only had a son and a daughter, i.e. Ursula).

The book also explained about mitochondrial DNA and genetics in general in such a plain language that a layperson like me can understand it very well. Author Brian Skyes briefly gave some examples how mtDNA could unlock the secrets of the past through some cases such as the last Tsar, the Basque, the ancestors of the Maori and the Polynesians and, most importantly, the Iceman.

But the impact of this book to me is not just an increase in my understanding on genetics. More than that, the 7DE made me respect not just Homo sapiens but also Homo neanderthalensis, or the Neanderthals. Not just respect; but sympathise with them. I feel ashamed now that, when I was a kid, I used to laugh at the images of the Neanderthals, the Homo erectus and the Pithecantropus inside my text books. Just like many ignorant kids, I associated these ancient beings as barbaric, dim-witted inferior beings. But now, learning that they might not have been the barbaric, senseless beings they were often projected, I feel ashamed. These hominids, these beings, they were... brave. How did they face the cold European and Asian tundras alone, only with 10-30 people around them in the band? What did they think when they saw the vast landscape of cold, cold tundra ahead of them, with millions of stars above their heads as the sun went down? Were they scared? Sure they were. Were they awed to see the stars? Most likely. Did they often wonder about what those lights above them were? And that the patterns of the lights changed every now and then?

And most importantly, regarding the Neanderthals, I wonder what our species had done to them. Homo sapiens in Europe coexisted with the Neanderthals for about 5,000 years before the latter gave up and ceased to exist. Did we slaughter them? Did we just corner them such that they could no longer survive? It would be too cruel to slaughter a species even for survival, but the gradual disappearance of the Neanderthals makes me believe that our species, full of mistakes as we are now, did not massacre them. It was perhaps our... ehm... “superiority” that took away their portion of resources and thus gradually cornered our cousins into extinction. What would have happened if the two Homo species still lived in this planet now? Would we be able to coexist? Sadly, I’m not sure that would be a likely case.

The 7DE made me respect the early explorers; the Neanderthals and Sapiens alike, who ventured out of West Eurasia (for the Neanderthals) and Africa (for the Sapiens) for something new. What made them ventured out of their comfort zone? Disease? Boredom? Longing for an adventure? Insatiable curiosity? If it were the two later cases, how brave they were! Venturing out to the unknown...

The 7DE also made me respect the women in the story. These women might not have names. Or if they did have names, the names wouldn’t be Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine and Jasmine. Ursula might not have died eaten by the bear. Xenia might not even have time to hold her twins. Jasmine might have been inspired to cultivate the wild grass after observing her neighbours instead. Most likely the detailed (imaginative) stories about these women are just that: imagination. But that does not steer me away from the book. These imaginative chapters do not make me deduct some marks off the book. If anything, it actually added some values to the book, because it enabled me to see these women as they were. Women. Mothers. Sisters. Daughters. Not just cave women. Not just senseless prehistoric women. These seven mothers were our clan mothers. How difficult their lives were to our daily lives, I can never imagine. Even during the coldest night that I’ve experienced (that was Washington DC, late winter 2001), I had a heater inside my hotel, and I had a coffee shop at the ground floor where I could buy a cup of hot chocolate and very delicious chocolate cookies. But those women... they wouldn’t know how beautiful it would be to sip a cup of hot tea, let alone hot chocolate. They wouldn’t know how to keep themselves and their children warm other than adding more firewood to the fire... or perhaps some animal bones if they ran out of wood. They wouldn’t have any conservation mind when they sense a bear nearby. Why would they? The first thing they had to do was to protect their family from the bear, not thinking about the dwindling bear population due to the increasing pressure of human population...

My life and their lives are so different. Yet we are connected to each other through our mtDNAs, our mitochondrial DNAs. These clan mothers gave us that; and also our survival instincts. That whatever happens, we can go through it.

Well, perhaps not my clan mother because I’m an Asian, and I might trace myself to Uma or Gaia instead of Ursula. But that doesn’t stop me to relate to them.

I do have some qualms tho about the book, mainly insufficient citations or reference that I could use for further readings and the lack of graphs or figures to help us understand genetics better. Sykes had about five figures in his book, and I certainly think he could use more. However, despite its flaws, 7DE made me relate to the prehistoric humans as... humans. Not just me looking at the fossils. Rather, me looking at them, reading about them, the way I would look at another human being. The way I would read about another human being.

Now I wish I have GBP 200 with me to do an mtDNA test for me. Who would I link to? Uma? Gaia? Malaxshmi? Nuo? Ulla? Lalamika? Which tundra did she tread? Which stars did she see? Did she have a dream of her own? Or was her dream simply to have her offspring save and survive this winter? That the next spring and summer they would have many games to hunt and the next autumn would have plenty of nuts and fruits to stock for the winter.


All these thoughts swirled in my mind about ten days ago. A few days later I learned the presence of another hominid species about the contemporaries of the Neanderthals. The Denisovans. We learned of their presence through three bones; specifically the pinkie bone (finger phalanx) and two molars. The three bones belonged to three different individuals (one young girl for the pinkie bone and two adult males for the molars). The bones have been aged to 30,000-50,000 years ago, which made them the contemporary of the Neanderthals (Wiki calls it a ‘sister group’). The Denisovans in fact contributed 3-5% of modern human DNA, particularly those from Southeast Asia and the Pacific (for it has been proven that the Polynesians came from Taiwan or Southeast Asia). In turn, the Neanderthals, the Denisovans and Homo sapiens shared a common ancestor (Homo heidelbergensis) about 1 million years ago. Interesting eh?

Science has been able to prove the presence of both Neanderthal and Denisovan genetics in modern human. Since I’m from Southeast Asia, it seems that I have some Denisovan DNA in my blood. Science said so. I, for one, don’t mind. 


Sheema informed me about the National Geographic Genographic Project, where you can trace back your ancestral line and see if you're related to the Neanderthals or the Denisovans. The cost is USD 200, which is about half the cost of the Oxford one. I hope I can afford this Natgeo test one day, I certainly don't mind them having my data!


Linda said...

WOW, thanks Icha! I have the book in hand from the library and only need time to do some reading. You surely covered it very well indeed! Catch you later.

Yrs aff'ly,
Linda the librarian

Sheema Abdul Aziz said...

Thanks for the giving us the low-down on this book, Icha! Love this kind of stuff. Regarding the Neanderthals, recent research has suggested that H. sapiens passed on some diseases to H. neanderthalensis which the latter was less adapted to, and which was potentially why their species eventually died out but sort of got absorbed into H. sapiens instead through interbreeding...

Icha said...

yeah, i wish i was a geneticist now as well, how cool that would be!!

I also read that; about the Neanderthal genes passed down to us; but it's more about building immunity than disease. So the mating between the Neanderthals and sapiens has so far proven more beneficial to modern humans than the Neanderthals. Poor guys...

It's mind-boggling to think that we indirectly were responsible for the extinction of one whole species. What do you think happened to the Denisovans, by the way? That's so new to me; so new to all of us (only found in 2010, that's 6 years ago!).

Linda said...

Wow again, I got the book and read as much as I could. It surely had tons of scientific stuff that I could not understand. I', still not sure what the end result was, but I will have to read your post above again. At my age, understanding is hard to come by. I still have a lot of work/study to do it seems. Thanks for posting, dear Icha.

Yrs aff'ly,
Linda the Librarian

Icha said...

You're most welcome, Linda dear. Feel free to discuss it with me here or on Facebook. I'm not an expert on genetics, but the book has made me understand several more things about genetic.