Book Report: The Invisible Sex

May 22, 2009

book invisible sex.jpg
I read an amazing thing while walking to work in a coffee shop (I love town work days) on Thursday morning and reading The Invisible Sex as I went. The book covers the vast topic of the role of women and females in prehistory and serves largely as a prodding debunker to point out blind spots or inaccuracies in previous assumptions made by the largely male archeological community about how early humans lived and worked. Its an interesting overall read with easy journalistic prose moving smoothly from one rather heavy weather science topic to another.

In chapter 6, Leaving the African Cradle, the focus falls on mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA which is passed down from mother to children without combining with the fathers DNA. Because it is not subject to mendelian genetic mixing the only changes in it occur through random mutations. Based on the variation in mtDNA around the world some scientists have used it to trace and roughly date a path back to a genetic Eve, an actual woman from whom all currently living humans are descended. I had a little trouble with this idea, harking vaguely back to my college biology courses and the bottleneck theory which says that an endangered species reduced past a certain minimum will be genetically compromised even if they can increase their numbers later. But the book explained how this happened a couple of paragraphs later in the discussion of Bryan Sykes theory of the seven daughters of Eve. More accurately he refers to seven other specific women who lived at times far later than Eve and from whom all European people he has typed are descended who “were, in theory, real people – actual human beings who lived and died – but they were discovered by looking backward from living people today. Everyone Sykes could find who represented Europeans had mtDNA that fit into one of seven distinct clusters, and the seven daughters are the women who are as far back in time as we can go through an unbroken matrilineal lineage (except of course to Eve herself). In other words, from Ursula to today, each generation produced a daughter to do. Any woman along the way who produced only sons would disappear from the mtDNA record.” P129.
This completely blew my mind: an unbroken line of women dating back to prehistoric times. What a powerful connection! It’s similar to men’s historic interest in the preservation of the male line through last names, which has never really caught my imagination despite the fact that my dad (the only son) had only daughters and so this branch of the Hansmann clan will die with him. Nor have I ever been particularly drawn to the pursuit of genealogy. As mom mockingly notes everybody who traces their family history seems to discover that they were related to royalty – what are the odds? This mtDNA idea really grabbed me though. I started thinking about that unbroken line. My mother, and grandmother or her mother, whom she started to search for only after it was too late. I was overcome with a momentary pulse of panic – what if I have only sons? Well, I’ll survive. But my mtDNA won’t. I’m going to be chewing on this for a while, I think.
J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page. 2007. The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory. New York: Smithsonian Books


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