History is lost in many ways. Just this past week in the Brazilian Rain Forest, officials discovered the last member of an indigenous tribe had died. No one knew his name, his language, or any of his history as no one had made contact with him and he died alone, the last of his people. Extinction.
More often than not, the new is just built over the old. Cities such as London, first settled 2,000 years ago just build over the top of older structures. Even Boston, a relatively young 400 years (almost) is a layered city as evidenced by archaeological excavations at Faneuil Hall and the African Meeting House.
Many are fascinated by the archaeological and paleontological discoveries made every day all over the world. Legendary cities are brought to light. Stories once thought to be myths are suddenly found and we discover modern humans made it to places much earlier than traditionally thought.
Was this past ever lost, to begin with? For, in fact, the past is always with us in our DNA. While we have known about DNA for over a century, the last 30 years have opened up areas we would not have dreamed of before the 1990s. One of those areas is mitochondrial DNA, which is the DNA passed down the maternal line and which changes very little over tens of thousands of years. Through the techniques developed to trace the maternal DNA, scientists have discovered an “Eve” from whom all modern humans descend and she, of course, lived in Africa.
Bryan Sykes, a geneticist from Oxford, who developed effective techniques to extract DNA from ancient bones, found descendants of Cheddar Man (30,000 years old) in the Cheddar Valley of England living within a few miles of where the ancient bones were found. Another famous discovery of Otzi, the Iceman, whose body was discovered in the Alps was murdered 5,000 years ago. Sykes analyzed his DNA and discovered a woman in Ireland who had his exact DNA profile. Focusing on mitochondrial DNA in the British Isles, Sykes was able to differentiate 7 women from whom all inhabitants of the British Islands descend. Naming them the “Seven Daughters of Eve”, he determined the origins of these women between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago
In North and South America numerous theories have placed indigenous people on the continent up to 30,000 years ago with origin theories from the Bering Straight Ice Bridge to various sea routes. DNA discoveries are just beginning to link indigenous people of the Americas to China, Pacific Islands, and event tribes in Africa. Bottom line is that human beings have migrated for tens of thousands of years.
History is living in all of us and as techniques are refined, we will discover more precise connections among the 7 billion humans on the planet. Instead of being a static layered picture of history, perhaps we should see history as a flowing stream, constantly changing as other streams flow into it and all beings connected in the flow.
The Seven Daughters of Eve. Brian Stykes
The Man of the Hole Dies In Brazil. New York Times. 8.29.22