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Who were the seven daughters of Eve?

The Seven Daughters of Eve was the title of the book written by Bryan Sykes, also famous for founding the company Oxford Ancestors, who offer DNA testing to genealogists.

Sykes was the first scientist to collect DNA from an ancient sample of bone and he has published studies about using DNA testing to find out more about ancient peoples. In 2001, he wrote about how DNA testing could be used to assign everyone to groups, who were descended from seven ancient women – whom he called the seven daughters of Eve.

Bryan Sykes tried to explain an extremely complex subject – human genetics and evolution – in a simple way but it still gets difficult to grasp. For example, the seven daughters of Eve did not all live at the same time, but they were all descended through the female line from one single woman, called the mitochondrial Eve. Some of the women are descended from each other – but through the male line.

Very convoluted! However, the main take home message is that testing anyone’s mitochondrial DNA can tell them which of the clan mothers they are descended from. This gives some valuable clues about regional and ethnic origins.

The diagram on the left shows what a mitochondrion looks like. Its sort of a sausage, but very tiny. An egg cell has hundreds of them. You can just see the tiny strands of mitochondrial DNA inside the spaces between the folds in the inner membrane.

  

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) can only be inherited from your mother. A woman passes it on to all of her children, male and female. So, anyone can have an mtDNA test done – you don’t need to be a male, as with the Y-DNA test. However, if you are a male, the test will reveal only your female ancestry – and that only in a very general sense.

This is how it works. When an egg is fertilised by a sperm, to start the life of a new human being, the sperm’s DNA is literally injected into the egg. The larger egg provides the nutrients and energy to get the process of division going. It contains tiny energy creating units called mitochondria – and these all come from the mother. Each mitochondria has a little bit of its own DNA, that is therefore passed from mother to children, over and over again. The mitochondrial DNA is very stable and changes little over time – which is why it can be used to group people together into ‘clans’ who are all descended from clan mothers way, way back in time.

People with a European origin are all descended from the seven daughters of Eve, but there are other clan mothers – four for people of native american descent, nine for those with a Japanese background, and there are a further 16 clan mothers for people originating from other parts of the world. Each one of the 36 clan mothers are direct descendents of the mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

If you have an mtDNA test done, your sequence can be used to tell which clan mother you are descended from – revealing part of your ancient origins, whether in Europe or elsewhere.

Who were the seven daughters of Eve?

Ursula

Ursula is the mother to a clan founded 45,000 years ago in Europe. Up to 11% of European people are descended from Ursula, many of them now living in the west of the UK and in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Xenia

Xenia lived more recently than Ursula, about 25,000 years ago, just before the deepest, darkest cold period of the last Ice Age. Only 7% of people in Europe are descended from Xenia – these live either in Eastern Europe, or in central Europe. A further 1% of native Americans are descended from Xenia’s clan.

Helena

Helena lived more recently still – about 20,000 years ago – and is clan mother to 41% of people who now live in Europe. Not surprisingly, this enormous clan has many sub-branches but it is notably frequent in the Basque regions of France and Spain. Helena lived in southern France, around the Dordogne and Vezere regions.

Velda

Velda’s clan represents the other end of the spectrum from Helena’s – only 4% of Europeans belong to this clan, making it the smallest. Velda’s descendants live now in the west and north of Europe and make up a large proportion of the Saami people from Norway and Finland.

Tara

Tara lived 17,000 years ago in northern Italy, in Tuscany. Her descendants, who represent 10% of Europeans alive today are mainly found in the south and west of Europe and there are a lot of the Tara clan in Ireland and the west of the UK.

Katrine

Like Tara, Katrine also lived in the north of Italy, but nearer to the Alps. Katrine lived 2,000 years after Tara and the 10% of Europeans in this clan are found all over central and northern Europe.

Jasmine

Jasmine is the most recent of all the clan mothers, living 8,500 years ago. She lived in the Middle East originally, but her immediate descendants travelled into Europe during the agricultural revolution, bringing farming into mainland Europe. About 12% of modern Europeans are descended from her.

Ulrike

Ulrike lived 18,000 years ago, in the Ukraine and her descendants, only 2% of today’s Europeans live in the east and north of Europe, with many of them still living in the countries near to the Ukraine.

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