What, if anything, is a Mitochondrial Eve?

Krishna Kunchithapadam

I wrote this essay in December, 1995 for the ERRANCY mailing list (which is devoted to the discussion and refutation of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy).


One of the best indications that a scientific and mathematical statement has not been explained properly is the many different (and incorrect) ways people interpret it.

Excellent discussions of the Mitochondrial Eve are to be found in:

Here are some points to note:

As an exercise, try to eliminate just one phrase of the definition of the ME and see what happens. The key terms are most-recent, common ancestor, humans alive today, matrilineal descent.

I mentioned the Y-chromosome Adam (YcA for short) earlier in discussing patrilineal descent. The YcA has also been identified (by the careful sequencing of a small region of the Y-chromosome that all men carry) and has been dated considerably more recent than the ME (yet another slap-in-the-face for bibliolaters---their Adam and Eve lived many tens of thousands of years apart). The YcA is not as special as the ME because only men carry the Y-chromosome, whereas all humans, men and women, carry mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA. So the YcA would not leave the same kind of trace in women living today as the ME did. However, the existence of the YcA is as mathematically necessary as the existence of the ME (use the earlier set argument, but now with the father-of relationship).

While the existence of the ME and the YcA are mathematical, I am more interested in the point in time when the titles were conferred on the particular ME and YcA were are talking about today. These people have held their respective titles for perhaps many centuries, but the really tantalizing question is when they qualified. Was the original human population (from which we all descended) so small that our ME was identified very quickly after her death or did the death of an old woman in a remote village in Southern Africa during the time that the Pharohs ruled in Egypt represent that critical demise of the last matrilineal line not connected with our ME. Similar arguments hold for the YcA.

A final note. The techniques of DNA sequencing, DNA-relatedness comparisons, and the calibration of the molecular clock have been improving dramatically over the past few years. The existence of the Mitochondrial Eve and the Y-chromosome Adam are no longer in any doubt (remember, both are mathematical necessities)---what is still being discussed is the estimation of how long ago they lived. Determining their ages requires an accurate calibration of the molecular clock and there is some disagreement here.

Copyright © Krishna Kunchithapadam
Last updated: Mon May 1 16:46:06 PDT 2000
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