Sunday, May 13, 2012
Stories of our Mothers
One of the books that I am currently reading is The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes. In the book Sykes talks about being a geneticist who analyzes the remains of ancient people. Frequently if a mummy or remains are found there is not enough genetic material left to be able to do any kind of genetic analysis. The strands of DNA are simply too ravaged by time, water, and varying temperatures. When Sykes first began to look at the DNA of ancient peoples he was fortunate enough to be given a sample from Utzi the Iceman. Utzi is one of my favorite mummies (and yes I have favorite mummies but that is another series of posts!). Utzi was found frozen in the Alps by a pair of hikers who at first thought he was an unfortunate modern individual who had met his death. The stone ax gave Utzi away as an ancient traveler. Utzi's story is quite remarkable in itself because he was determined to have been murdered and died up in the glacial ice of the Alps-- but again that is another story for another post. When Sykes was given the tissue sample taken from Utzi his form of amplifying the DNA was a new technique. Further Utzi's tissue samples were somewhat decayed. In trying to recreate Utzi's DNA sample it could be easy to confuse a modern DNA sample, say from a fleck of skin, with the ancient sample and create a genetic map of the researcher. Great care was taken to create a procedure to ensure that the genetic map created was that of Utzi and not Sykes or his assistant. After Utzi's DNA was mapped, it was discovered that a volunteer who had given Sykes a tissue to be analyzed was related to Utzi. He was an ancestor of hers based on her mitochondrial DNA. Suddenly for this volunteer Utzi took on new significance. The past moved forward and had more life.
Today is Mother's Day in the United States. Using some bio-mathematical analysis applied to genetic mapping and sampling, "seven daughters of Eve" have been identified. Anyone who has ancestry that originated in Europe is purportedly related to one of these ancient women. I like the Sykes book because for each of these women there is a historical fiction chapter where their lives are written about. It makes the past more real even if it is conjecture.
I think we live our lives through stories and we create the myths of ourselves. We create a mythos of our family. The mythos includes things like how Great Grandma would cheat at canasta and turn her hearing aid off when anyone complained, how Great Grandpa helped build the Golden Gate Bridge, or how Grandma taught herself to drive a stick shift in the driveway with all four of her young children in the car. The mythos can also include things like discovering when the Danish ancestors came to Chicago and set up a boarding house, when the German ancestors came to Mount Pleasant, or when Great Grandpa's Grandma dropped her son off at a farm in Battle Creek saying she would send for him but she never did and he married the farmer's daughter. For some families it means tracing the ancestral tree back to Copenhagen or Alsace-Lorraine and finding church registries.
Knowing our stories or finding our ancestors is a way to know ourselves, even if we are right there looking back from the reflection in the mirror. It is a way to create identity. I would like to do a cheek swab and have it sent off for genetic analysis so that I could know which of the seven daughters is my ancestor. Am I related to Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Velda, Tara, Katrine, or Jasmine? Is this entirely significant to my life right now? Not really. No more so than the stories my grandmother told me as a child sitting upon her lap. Except it helps to create a sense of self that extends back in time. Mothers have been giving birth for thousands of years. This may seem an obvious fact. But think about it. Each of us is among the thousands of great, great, great, great, great,..., great grandchildren of some woman who walked through a primeval forest, slept in a shelter made of mammoth tusks and skins, or migrated across the glaciers of an ice age. If a majority of us are related, how can we treat one another badly if we conceive of ourselves as a large family? What would matriarch Ursula who only survived because of cooperation amongst her small band of hunter-gatherers think? If we take this idea into our sense of identity, how can we act in way other than for the common good that elevates us all?
Remember your maternal ancestors today. Learn their stories.
Happy Mother's Day!