My mother died ten years ago this week, and I am brought to think of the vanishing point, that not-so-distant past beyond which none of us can know the fathers and mothers who brought us here.
My parents were flesh to me, as were both grandmothers. I never knew either grandfather, but they are romance and tragedy to imagine. My mother’s father married cold, burned to gamble, and died self-handedly a fervent Socialist; my father’s married better, yearned to gambol in Yiddish theatre, and also died too young. Neither was fulfilled. I can’t know them; they are a thin dream. And in their dry traces, I find myself…reliving. We are ever children, and ever children of our parents, even as our parents become children to us. After my mother’s mild stroke, I became caretaker in both relative-directions.
Beyond grandparents the flesh turns to mythology. Of the eight greats, there are only three of whom I know anything. My father’s father came to America in 1897, and from him comes, in a bizarre fashion, the Cotler name (cf. blog post Ellis Island Vignette). My mother’s mother, not a Cotler and therefore blessed with the ability to tell a story of normal length, lovingly described her parents to me. First because they were flesh to her, and she could still feel their gentle touch deep into her last decade…and second because I am named for them both. But my grandmother is gone now, and all I have of her parents are two photographs and a few adjectives imparted to me as a child. Earlier than these three I have only names and a single anecdote of a three-greats-grandmother. Before that is my vanishing point.
For all of us, beyond a few generations the ancestors are just names and stories, devoid of emotional content except for the hubristic nonsense gained by reaching back to the family tree branch on which sits that one man on the Mayflower or that one woman who was third in line to the Hapsburg throne. Far more important is the African woman we call Mitochondrial Eve, our matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA), the mother of us all. This is not a new discovery. Researchers first postulated a common ancestor based on mitochondrial DNA transmission in the 1980s.
There are actually two types of DNA in our cells: nuclear DNA (which resides in cell nuclei) and mitochondrial DNA (which resides in the mitochondria, one type of cell organelle). Nucleic DNA determines what and who we are. It’s the stuff in chromosomes. Mitochondria are the bodies in cells that produce the energy that enables life. They resemble bacteria, and most scientists believe that a billion years ago they were bacteria…and were captured by other cells, creating a symbiotic relationship that led to higher forms of life. But unlike nucleic DNA, which comes from both sperm and ovum, mitochondrial DNA is passed down only through the ovum. This means that all children have the same mitochondrial DNA as their mothers who have the same as their mothers who have the same as….
If a woman has no offspring or only sons, her mitochondrial DNA is lost. Therefore, by examining the genome of women around the world and using the predictable rate of mutations of mitochondrial DNA (which is actually less frequent than nucleic DNA), scientists have concluded that about 140,000-200,000 years ago, there must have existed a woman to whom every human now on earth is related: Mitochondrial Eve.
This does not mean that she was the only female human alive back then; she is not a Biblical Eve. Estimates are that there were about 20,000 humans in or around her community. Mitochondrial Eve is unique in that she was the only woman living at that time whose line of daughters is unbroken to the present day.
Back beyond the vanishing point is darkness and the prejudice that comes from skin-deep, ethnic pride. Far beyond that darkness was Mitochondrial Eve. And through her we are all African. We are all human. We are all related.