Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mitochondrial Eve

One of the projects I want to start this year is my series on "Mitochondrial Eve" who was our most recent common female ancestor (MRCFA) some 200,000 years ago, before we left Africa. A very dear friend of mine once said that he admired my ability to think in decades not just days, but it took a lot of thought to wrap my mind around this concept.

Of course, she is not the Biblical Eve (whom I believe to be an entirely metaphorical construct), she is just our MRCFA. Nonetheless, she is the mother of us all, by whom we are all connected - our universal ancestress whether we are Gandhi or Hitler, Obama or Bush, or just some woman in the midwest writing a blog about a weaving project.

This idea intrigued me from the moment I first heard of it. Partly, that's because I have a special fondness for Mitochondria, the little "workhorse" of the cell, a tiny symbiote who took refuge with us almost at the beginning of life and which converts fuel into electricity. We couldn't exist without our little interlopers and they couldn't exist without us. Mitochondria are passed from mother to child, and through mitochondrial DNA, we can trace our female ancestry back to the beginning of humanity and beyond.

Mitochondrial Eve is the hourglass of our past, a metaphor I picked up from the website listed below. She was not the only Eve. She was just the one that survived a constriction in the tree of humanity, be it a climatic crisis or a plague. Her offspring spread humanity into a new tree. There were doubtless other Eves before her, and there may well be others in the future; but for now she is our mother.

I like to think about her and what she might have looked like. I think of her as a slender young woman with a baby on her hip, standing and looking out beyond the lands she knew into the future. She wasn't anyone special in her time. She could never have imagined that 200,000 years later one of her distant daughters would be writing about her during a spring rain, thousands of miles away.

When I imagine what she looked like I can never quite see her face. In my weaving project I plan to use the representational graph to depict her. The backgrounds will change but the graph never will.

To me she is intimately connected with the earth, and I like to think that she would be pleased that many of us are struggling to save her home, her legacy to us all. She is a constant that I cling to, this spectacularly ordinary woman who became the mother of the human race. That makes all of us kin, all of us brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, all of us one family full of quirky uncles and cranky aunts, cousins of questionable character, and grandmothers who bake cookies best of all.

[For a fuller explanation of the Mitochondrial Eve concept, see this web-site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A703199]

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