Mother Dear, You're Prehistoric; Genealogy Everyone with European Roots Is Directly Related to One of Seven Women Living Thousands of Years Ago. on the Eve of Mothering Sunday, Laura Davis Searches for the Leader of Her Ice Age Clan

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Davis

THERE are many things my mum has given me - a happy home life, a love of books, lifts to music lessons, brown hair, a beautiful art deco lamp - but neither of us were aware until just recently that she had given me a link to my distant ancestors.

A tiny piece of genetic material, know as mitochrondrial DNA, that is contained in each one of her cells can also be found in each of mine. It is also inside each of the cells that make up my sister's body, and those of my aunts and female cousins on my maternal family tree.

It has been passed down the chain from mother to daughter for hundreds of generations, and if I have female children then they will have it, too.

By analysing this mDNA, scientists at Oxford University are able to determine which of seven women, living tens of thousands of years ago on the landmass we now call Europe, each of us is related to.

There are many areas of this research that are hard to get your head around, but perhaps the most astonishing of all is the simplest - people living today who have European roots are descended from one of just seven women. So, if you are reading this feature in the office, it is very likely that you are distantly related to the person sitting at the desk next to yours, or the one opposite, or the person wandering towards the photocopier with a glazed look in their eyes, or even the boss.

These seven women - or "clan mothers" as Prof Bryan Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford University, calls them - lived between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago, everywhere from the Syrian savannah to the Tuscan hills.

Their lives were probably unremarkable to other members of their clan but, unlike their peers, they each gave birth to at least one daughter, who then gave birth to at least one daughter of their own and so on until the present day.

There will, of course, have been other women living at the same time, but their descendants either died out or only had sons, thus breaking the maternal line.

"It emphasises the extremely amazing thing that, in every cell of your body, you've got that little piece of DNA that has come from a woman living in the depths of the last Ice Age and that it survived in the bodies of your ancestors right through to the present day," says Prof Sykes, who has set up the company Oxford Ancestors to test people's DNA and find out which clan they belong to.

"As we were studying people in Europe, we discovered that everyone more or less fitted into seven groups and within each one everyone was related through their maternal line, so if you track that back far enough, by irresistible logic it would converge on just one woman."

The research began some two decades ago, when Prof Sykes became the first person to successfully extract DNA from bone.

Several high-profile cases followed, such as his analysis of the "Iceman", a 5,000-year-old skeleton found in the Alps in 1991, which uncovered some of his descendants living today, and the extraction of DNA from bones believed to have belonged to members of the Russian royal family.

Without knowing more about the DNA of those alive today, such finds could not be put into context, so Prof Sykes and his colleagues set about creating a database of 10,000 people.

"What amazes me constantly is that people do find it fascinating. It wasn't done as a piece of commercial research to try and make money, it was a piece of scientific, academic research," he explains.

"Oxford Ancestors started because people rang up all the time and we couldn't cope.

"When I published a book on the Seven Daughters of Eve, the lab had about 900 emails on the first day.

"We used to do it for nothing and then we thought we'd better start charging and hopefully they'll give up."

N ow anyone can have their DNA analysed for a pounds 180 fee, for which you get an information pack, two certificates stating your clan mother and access to the Oxford Ancestors database, which allows you to trace people within your clan, or those who have the same mDNA as you. …