Professor Bryan Sykes who studied Otzi the Iceman in 1994 and would go on to author the first genetics book written for public consumption, The Seven Daughters of Eve, passed away on December 10 at age 73. You can read his obituary here.
In 1994, Dr. Bryan Sykes worked on the frozen mummy in the Otztal Alps on the Austrian/Swiss border who would become affectionately known as Otzi.
Sykes initially identified Otzi’s mitochondrial DNA as a member of base haplogroup K. Sykes then identified a living Irish lady with the same sequence. Now we know that while base haplogroup K isn’t terribly common, it’s also not rare and millions of people share haplogroup K, upstream of Otzi.
At that time, however, Sykes suggested Otzi might have been a wayward Irishman. Science has advanced substantially since then and we’ve learned an incredible amount.
Eventually, scientists would determine that Otzi was actually haplogroup K1o, where the “o” stands for Otzi, whose line appears to now be extinct. You can read more, here.
Sykes’ first book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, published in 2001 was followed by other books, none of which garnered the mass appeal of The Seven Daughters book which captured our imaginations. Sykes described 7 European haplogroups and wrote a fictional storyline about how each one exited Africa, what they experienced, and how they migrated to Europe.
This was ground-breaking work at the time.
Ironically, Sykes never named or described haplogroup L or subclades, the true mother lineages in Africa, nor haplogroups M or N, daughters of haplogroup L3 from which all other non-L haplogroups spring.
He initially described and named:
- Ursula – haplogroup U
- Xenia – haplogroup X
- Helena – haplogroup H
- Velda – haplogroup V
- Tara – haplogroup T
- Katrine – haplogroup K
- Jasmine – haplogroup J
We were captivated by not only their stories, but the fact that they had names and our ancestors seemed to come alive. At that point in time, Sykes believed that these 7 haplogroups were the foundation from which all other haplogroups sprang.
Although eventually, many of Bryan’s early theories were disproven, his work provided a foundation on which future discoveries were built and the field evolved. All scientists, especially early innovators have to be willing to be “wrong” and have their work improved upon. It’s part of the deal and doesn’t take away from Bryan’s legacy of innovation and inspiration.
My Introduction to Consumer Genetics
I studied genetics in college as part of a science curriculum, but never really connected the dots to either genealogy or ever thought of testing myself for fun. Consumer genetics had not yet been born, and even medical genetics was in its infancy.
Eve’s 7 daughters hadn’t yet been defined or named, and genetics was disconnected from me or anyone I knew, except for peas, cats’ and dogs’ coat and eye color, and humans that had a mutation that caused a significant issue.
In 2001, I lay in bed one night reading the ads in the back of Science News, a weekly news magazine, when I saw the ad for Sykes book that promised to reveal the paths of Eve’s daughters out of Africa. I ordered the book right away and stayed up all night reading when it arrived. It was that good!
I was hooked.
The Seven Daughters of Eve
The Seven Daughters of Eve merged science, my family, and storytelling. All three of which were my loves and manifested themselves in genealogy. Not only was I hooked, but I desperately wanted to know to which clan I belonged. This was genealogy on steroids!
So, apparently, did a lot of other people, because that narrative was something every single person reading the book could relate to.
At the back of each of the Seven Daughters books, readers could tear out a page and send a check for roughly $800 US with the promise of receiving an envelope a few weeks later with a genetic map identifying your clan – meaning which of Eve’s daughters was your “mother.”
I ripped that page out of the back and wrote a check – only to have my husband inform me that he, too, wanted to know his clan. I couldn’t then, and still can’t believe I spent that much money on a “frivolous” DNA test. Little did I know that was just the beginning😊.
Just before the launch of his book, Sykes founded Oxford Ancestors, one of the first companies to test the mitochondrial, and some years later the Y DNA of consumers who could then see who they matched. Oxford Ancestors still exists but has struggled over the years. (I do not recommend them today.)
About 3 months later, I received a single sheet of paper in an envelope, signed by Dr. Sykes at the University of Oxford, and I was THRILLED to learn that I was in Jasmine’s clan. I opened the book and read that section again – because now that was MY story. Of course, today I know it wasn’t exactly accurate but no one knew that then.
I called my Mom. It was her story too. She called my brother. It’s his story too. I told both of my children, who didn’t care one iota – but it’s their story too and hope springs eternal.
Today, I can purchase about 6 full-sequence mitochondrial DNA tests that test 16,569 locations for the cost of a test that at that time only revealed my base haplogroup, “J,” by testing 400 locations.
Still, I was overjoyed and connected to the past across the bridge of time in a place and time that genealogy could never reach. Or so I thought. Clearly, genetic testing has improved immensely and genetics doesn’t just reach across that bridge today, genetics and genealogy are completely intertwined.
Bryan’s book was my initial inspiration – he lured many of the early genealogists and science buffs into the genetics spiderweb where we have gratefully been living ever since. Genetics has done more to unveil my ancestors and their past than any other tool. Bryan turned that tap on with a tiny drip-drip, which, by comparison, today is a tsunami of millions of testers across several major testing companies taking autosomal tests in addition to mitochondrial and Y DNA.
While paper-trail evidence reaches back a few hundred years, assuming the records still exist, DNA in its various forms reaches back hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of years – connecting us to the rest of humanity by following a breadcrumb trail of mutations back in time.
Sykes’ Later Years
In 2013 and 2014, Sykes analyzed residue from creatures purported to be the Yeti and Bigfoot in his Oxford lab. He attributed the samples to bears and other primates on BBC News. Other researchers disagreed with his analysis, and with each other, and the topic became controversial.
Bryan relished publicity and was never afraid of leading and sometimes bleeding-edge research. In order to succeed, one must be willing to take risks, and Dr. Sykes clearly did. It was his vivre la vie and contagious excitement that inspired others to begin their own journeys of discovery.
While many people don’t know of or about Bryan Sykes today, in the early days, few people didn’t feel strongly about Bryan’s work, one way or the other. Bryan was simply glad that people were talking about genetics. Lots of consumers became enamored and curious and the earliest seeds of the direct-to-consumer genetics industry were planted.
Now that Bryan has progressed to the other side, I’m sure that he is quizzing all of the daughters of Eve about how they are related to each other, where they lived, when they moved, to where, who they married, and is asking everyone to DNA test. Bryan, I have a few requests if you meet up with my ancestors…
Go with the flow Bryan, and thank you.
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