Each of us has inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), along with the mutations that have accumulated in our individual family lines. Geneticists can test for these accumulated mutations. Individual test results are called a haplotype or mitotype. People with the same cluster of mutations belong to the same haplogroup, and are descended from the same female line. There are 36 known mitochondrial haplogroups worldwide, with more being discovered as research advances.
Almost all Europeans belong to one of only seven haplogroups. This means that most Europeans are descended in the female line from one of seven different women. These women have been called the “Seven Daughters of Eve,” although they lived at widely different periods in history. Their descendants came to Europe at different times and spread throughout the continent. Of course, because we each have so many ancestors, not just our ancestors in the female line, all Europeans descend from each of these seven women many times over.
Geneticists identify each of the major haplogroups by a single letter. For example, H, J, K, T, U, V and X. Each of these letters, therefore, represents a family descended from a distant female ancestor. Subgroups within each haplogroup are represented by numbers. Further subgroups are represented by lower case letters. For example, U is a haplogroup, U5 is one of its subgroups, and U5a and U5b are further subgroups.
Oxford Ancestors, an English genetics lab, has assigned whimsical names to the founding mothers of the different haplogroups (which he calls “clans”). For example, the ancestor of haplogroup U is called Ursula, the ancestor of haplogroup V is called Velda, and so on.
Seven Daughters of Eve
According to Oxford Ancestors, the haplogroups most common in Europe are:
Helena is by far the largest and most successful of the seven native clans with 41% of Europeans belonging to one of its many branches. It began 20 thousand years ago (~1,000 generations) with the birth of Helena somewhere in the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vezere, in south-central France. The clan is widespread throughout all parts of Europe, but reaches its highest frequency among the Basque people of northern Spain and southern France.
Remains that are said to be those of St. Luke the Evangelist show that he was a member of this clan. He was born in Syria and died in Thebes about 150 CE.
Another famous member was Marie Antoinette. Her earliest known maternal ancestor was Bertha von Pfullendorf, who died in 1198. Marie Antoinette’s DNA was tested as part of a project to validate the remains of her son, Louis VII.
The remains of the Russian royal family show that they also belonged to this clan. When the Russian royal family was murdered in 1918, their bodies were hastily disposed. In 1991, nine bodies were recovered from a shallow grave near Ekaterinburg, Russia. Experts obtained mtDNA samples from female-line relatives of Empress Alexandra, including Prince Philip. The samples matched the mtDNA extracted from the bones, proving that the bodies were the remains of the Romanovs. Further tests showed that Anna Anderson, a woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, was in fact a Polish actress.
Jasmine is the second largest of the seven European clans after Helena and is the only one to have its origins outside Europe. Jasmine and her descendants, who now make up 12% of Europeans, were among the first farmers and brought the agricultural revolution to Europe from the Middle East around 8,500 years ago (~425 generations).
Katrine is a medium-sized clan with 10% of Europeans among its membership. Katrine herself lived 15 thousand years ago (~750 generations) in the wooded plains of northeast Italy, now flooded by the Adriatic, and among the southern foothills of the Alps. Her descendants are still there in numbers, but have also spread throughout central and northern Europe.
“The Ice Man,” also known as “Otzi,” was a member of this clan. He lived about 3350 BCE – 3300 BCE. His remains were discovered in 1991 in a glacier in the Italian Alps.
Tara includes slightly fewer than 10% of modern Europeans. Its many branches are widely distributed throughout southern and western Europe with particularly high concentrations in Ireland and the west of Britain. Tara herself lived 17 thousand years ago (~850 generations) in the northwest of Italy among the hills of Tuscany and along the estuary of the river Arno.
Nicholas II, last Emperor of Russia, was a member of this clan, as was Jesse James.
Ursula is the oldest of the seven European clans. It was founded about 45 thousand years ago (~2,250 generations) by the first modern humans (Homo Sapiens) as they established themselves in Europe. Dr. Brian Sykes, Oxford University, believes Ursula was born in a shallow cave cut into the cliffs of what is now Mount Parnassus, close to what became Delphi. Her female-line descendants are common among both white Europeans and black Africans — she lived at a time before the emergence of the so-called “races.” Today, about 11% of modern Europeans are the direct maternal descendants of Ursula. The clan is particularly well represented in western Britain and Scandinavia.
“Cheddar Man,” whose remains were discovered in a cave in England, was a member of the Ursula Clan. He died about 9,000 years ago (~450 generations).
Velda is the smallest of the seven European clans containing only about 4% of native Europeans. Velda lived 17 thousand years ago (~850 generations) in the limestone hills of Cantabria in northwest Spain. Her descendants are found nowadays mainly in western and northern Europe. They are surprisingly frequent among the Skolt Sámi (Lapps) (50%) of Scandinavia and the Basques (12%) of Spain.
Xenia is the second oldest of the seven European clans. It was founded 25 thousand years ago (~1,250 generations) by the second wave of modern humans, Homo Sapiens, who established themselves in Europe, just prior to the coldest part of the last Ice Age. Today around 7% of native Europeans are in the clan of Xenia. About 1% of Native Americans are also in the clan of Xenia.
An Anglo-Saxon skeleton from the 11th century was discovered at Norwich Castle in England and shown to be a member of this clan.
- Brian Sykes. The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001).
- Wikipedia, Human Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups.