I must first declare an interest in reviewing this book, as Bryan Sykes and I collaborate on scientific projects. I am there in chapter 12 of The Seven Daughetrs of Eve, along with our joint research on the extraction of the genetic material, DNA, from fossil human bones excavated in a Cheddar cave.
Sykes has been one of the pioneers in using genes to reconstruct human prehistory, and his book covers a lot of ground: geographically from Cheddar to Polynesia, and historically from the Neanderthals to the slaughtered Russian royal family. It is a very accessible description of his scientific research, with a welcome minimum of technical terms, although those who do want to find out more will regret the absence of endnotes or suggestions for further reading.
Sykes rightly acknowledges a suite of fellow-researchers, and promises that in what follows "you will see what really happens in a genetics laboratory. Like any walk of life, science has its ups and downs, its heroes and villains". He doesn't shy away from identifying some of the biggest names in the field as his personal betes noires.
The book begins with the early days of his research on ancient DNA, culminating in the successful recovery of DNA from the 5000- year-old body of the "Iceman" discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991. These pioneering days did lay the groundwork for exciting work to come, although perhaps Sykes overstates it a bit in claiming "profound conclusions about the history and soul of our species".
There follows a a very readable account of DNA, genes and mitochondria, the latter the real stars of the story. These little "organelles" within most of our cells carry their own DNA, and this has been passed in an unbroken line through women and their daughters since long before Homo sapiens was born. (Men inherit mitochondrial DNA from their mothers too, but do not pass it on.)
But the line is not quite unbroken, because as the mitochondrial DNA is copied from one generation to the next, little errors may creep in, and if the modified DNA survives, all its progeny will carry the copying mistake. The accumulated mistakes can therefore be used to trace different female lineages or "clans", and the numbers of mistakes (more properly mutations) can be used to estimate the time taken for them to have built up. Thus in 1987 it was shown that everyone alive today is apparently descended from an ancient mother who lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. This mother was not our only ancestor, because we are the product of a tangled history of many thousands of genes; but for the mitochondrial DNA studied, she was indeed our "Eve".
Sykes then recounts how he turned forensic detective and used his little mitochondrial allies to help identify remains thought to represent the Russian royal family, massacred in 1918. Through several generations of women, the Tsar could be linked with a surviving relative, Count Trubetskoy, while the Tsarina could be linked with the Duke of Edinburgh. These living relatives provided blood samples, and their DNA was shown to match extracts from the bones dug up near Ekaterinburg. The same technology later showed that Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, was definitely an impostor.
The following chapters describe an equally definitive test using DNA data. Sykes and his colleagues collected samples from the islands of the Pacific to see whether there was independent support for Thor Heyerdahl's idea that the Polynesians had crossed the Pacific from South America, rather than Asia. …