The Woman Who is the “Mother” of Us All

Today I found out that all humans can be traced back to a single female known as Mitochondrial Eve.

This woman is thought to be the “mother” of all humans alive today. Seems like a big claim for scientists to make.  So how do they know this?  The simple explanation is that when an egg is fertilized by a sperm, the DNA from the father and mother join together in a process known as recombination. Certain DNA is only passed down from the mother or father.  All mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) come exclusively from the mother, as an exact copy. Over time however, there will occur predictable mutations to mtDNA. Biologists can compare samples from individuals to determine how closely they are related- the fewer these predictable mutations, the closer the relationship.  The predictability of these mutations also allows biologists to estimate the time at which a certain mutation (i.e. ancestor) lived.  Beginning in 1987, several studies have been conducted that show all humans alive today have the same female ancestor and she lived approximately 200,000 years ago.

A more detailed explanation is as follows.  Mitochondria are a type of organelle found in almost all complex cells. They are known as the power plants of the cell because they supply an enzyme (more accurately a co-enzyme) known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This ATP is the source for the chemical energy needed by a cell to perform a wide range of functions. The DNA found within mitochondria have two benefits. They have 37 genes that rarely mutate, so they can be easily used as the model for an evolutionary clock, and these same genes have subsections that mutate in a predictable manor so biologists can use it as a reference for age.

Sperm have only a few mitochondria (and thus mitochondrial DNA) in their tails. They use them to power their quest to the egg. As the sperm enters the egg, only the chromosomes found in the head of the sperm are preserved and used in the recombination process to create new cells. This is because the rest of the sperm cell is broken down by enzymes within the egg. So the mitochondrial DNA in the tail is lost and the only type to survive is supplied by the mother.

As the human population grows from one generation to the next, women transfer this DNA evidence to their daughters. They, in turn, transfer it to their daughters. Should a woman have only a son, their mtDNA is lost, because it will never be passed to his children.

However, there have been a few rare cases in which mitochondrial DNA was found recombined from both parents. Some skeptics of the Mitochondrial Eve theory use this to cast doubt on the hypothesis. This opposition is somewhat dubious as those few cases occur in people who are typically far too biologically deficient  to have offspring. Thus, the prevailing assumption is that these unfortunate people have something seriously wrong with their DNA and the abnormal recombination of mtDNA will never get into the human population because of it.

Even though biologists have shown that all people are descended from one person, this does not mean that only one female was alive at that time. It simply means only one set of genes have been passed down from a single point in history. Most researchers agree that “Eve” was not the only women alive because the fossil record shows much older specimens. From “Java man” at about 800,000 years to “Lucy”, the earliest known remains which are approximately 1-4 million years old.

There are several theories about how just one set of genes could have survived. The most likely is a bottleneck of the human population that would set the stage for an evolutionary “lucky mother”. There have been several possible bottlenecks in history. One report, written in 1998, showed approximately 70,000 years ago humanity was down to around 15,000 people. It showed the reason behind the bottleneck was an ice age that lasted about a 1,000 years.

Other reasons bottlenecks could have happened are: an asteroid impact or volcanic eruption causing drastic climate change; a continuous, widespread plague; or any situation that caused male offspring to have a better chance of survival, leaving relatively few women around to pass on their genes. While no definitive proof exists that these occurred, most researchers believe a combination of one or all of these factors are behind why we all have a common ancestor.

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Bonus Facts:

  • There is another type of genetic test that can trace all humans alive today back through their father’s ancestors. This uses what is known as the Y chromosome and shows that all people today can trace their lineage back to a single father known as “Y Chromosome Adam”.
  • Before you start throwing fuel on any religious fire, Y Adam lived at a completely different time then Eve. Approximately 60,000 -90,000 years ago. How can this be? Mitochondrial Eve is simply the most recent common ancestor of mtDNA. Y chromosomal Adam is the most recent common ancestor for Y DNA. They did not have to be a couple for both of their genes to be the source for all current humans. Think of it this way; you have two rivers flowing down two separate mountains joined at the bottom. We’ll call Mitochondrial Eve, “Mountain A”. We’ll call Y Adam, “Mountain B”. The rivers will be their respective genetic lines. As they cross paths at the bottom, the joined rivers create a bigger river that itself splits off into countless streams that is humanity today. Mountain A could be a thousand times older then mountain B. What matters is the point at which they crossed created all the streams (people) that exist down hill from that point. It would also not matter how many times Eve’s river split before it crossed with Adams, it only matters that they crossed and the only streams to survive came from both mountains.
  • There is an obvious disparity between the approximate age of Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam and the current fossil record. Because of this, there is a very heated debate between geneticists and paleoanthropologists about the true origins of human kind. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that all humans descended out of Africa at some point in history.
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  • There is actually black people in africa whos genetics are also more similar to our ancestors. Which just adds to the out of africa theory.

  • I don’t get the jokes at the end. Can someone explain the jokes?

    • lol normally you say you wear the pants in this family = being the boss in the family

      but they only had plants to cover their genetelia as you see in pictures so she says i’ll be wearing the plants , haha … yeah.

  • @joyce … adam and eve wore plants to cover up there genitalia.. So its a pun for “I’ll be wearing the pants in this relationship”

  • “The age for the Y-MRCA has been variously estimated as 188,000,[2] 270,000,[3] 306,000,[4] and 142,000[5] A paper published in March 2013 reported an older estimate of 338,000 years.[6] Then two simultaneous reports in August 2013 provide younger estimates, one suggested 180,000 to 200,000 years,[7] and another, based on the genome sequence of nine different populations, indicated the age between 120,000 and 156,000 years.[8]”

    Are you even trying anymore?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @random: You are quoting papers from 2013. This article was written in early 2012 and published in late 2012.


  • That one woman would not be Eve, she would be the wife of Noah. Everyone alive would have to have been related to her–but none of her predecessors or contemporaries would have survived her.

    • Sorry CrazedLeper but Noah’s wife could not be Mitochondrial Eve. Noah’s sons brought their wives along. Baring her having an unmentioned incestuous daughter (possible, this is the bible after all) none of her mitochondrial DNA would have propagated. Better claim would have been for Noah as “Y Chromosome Adam”. His son’s would have had his Y and so would everyone else.

  • What a lovely name. I wish my parents had named me Mitochondrial.

  • If humans came out of Africa, then why is it always when discussing the first Eve, that you picture the female to be White. Didn’t Whites came into existence thousands of years later? The Black woman carries the oldest gene in her DNA!!

    • Notice the white woman pictured at the top… Yet this gene is only found in African Women… Interesting

    • Thank you! I was wondering the same thing! Why can’t actual Black women be depicted BY A BLACK WOMAN???!!!

      • Haahaaa, I was wondering the same thing about the white lady on the pic. I guess its the same reason why white Jesus was slapped on everything when we all know that Jesus was a man of color Smh.

        White cannot produce black due to their recessive genes but black women carry the DNA to produce all branches of humanity. Read up of the wide cases of Albinism in sub Sahara Africa and the migration of this gene mutation a all this begins to make sense. And just looking into the Melanin enriched people and we begin to understand the where we all come from. White comes from black!! Why is this so difficult for some white people to accept!!

  • I have studies the Mitochondrial DNA for a little while… also, I have studied the effects of media and racism on the mind… I say this because Scientific Eve was from the continent we know of today as Africa… The lighter skin people did not show up for thousands of years later as people began to migrate north or east… Basically what I am saying is: Why is this article speaking of Mitochondrial DNA and speaking of Scientific Eve with a European white woman posted as the visual?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @G: It’s from a famous painting of the Biblical Eve.

      • Prof. M.Rae Smith

        There are TONS of Pictures of paintings or pictures of a black eve. Therefore, have the respect to use a pic of a woman of color.

        • Daven Hiskey

          @Prof. M.Rae Smith: One needs to have the rights to post such a picture. But in the end, you’re very much over thinking this. Humans are humans regardless of the color of skin, eyes, whatever. (And that very point is integral to this article- us being all related.) Putting stock in color of skin as you’re doing here is ridiculous. Next will you complain and take offense because the woman in the picture has red hair instead of whatever exact shade you think Mitochondrial Eve had? And she’s holding a snake! Did Mitochondrial Eve ever hold a snake?!?! The loving way she’s holding said snake also has cultural implications. Am I implying Mitochondrial Eve, and perhaps dually redheads, are responsible for the fall of man from the grace of the Biblical god, as the picture I chose would seem to imply?!?!? ;-)

          Whatever the woman in question looked like, the picture isn’t integral to the article, and if it was I certainly wouldn’t have picked anything with Biblical implications, but rather scientific. But, really, any picture would be every bit as arbitrary as this one, as who knows what said woman looked like physically? Did she have a large head and bulbous nose? Was she short relative to modern averages, perhaps due to malnutrition? Were humans at this point tan-colored, a la someone today from South Asia? Were they jet-black like many today from, say, Guinea Bissau? Or were they something in between? Were we still fairly hairy? Etc. If physical attributes were what the article was about, that would be very important to get right based on the current state of human knowledge about the answers to those questions.

          Or if I’d have put a caption of, “This is what Mitochondrial Eve probably looked like,” under the picture or something like that, then you’d have an argument and that would even be an interesting point of discussion to look at specific research on the topic. I really am fascinated about questions like- What was the weather like in the region at the time we think Mitochondrial Eve may have lived in and what can we infer about that? (Humans seem to have first emerged from Africa some 100,000-ish years ago, but we started wearing clothes around 170,000 years ago, perhaps as a result of an Ice Age. Mitocondrial Eve *seems* to have lived just before this, so can we assume it was quite warm at the time?) Does anything in surviving DNA tell us anything specific about said woman’s physical features or other attributes? Did she have any medical issues she passed on to her descendents that we can discern? Etc. Now that would be a fascinating discussion and interesting to learn about. I’m quite sure we humans know at least partially the answer to some, or perhaps even all, of these questions. And if you know said answers and links to research on the topics, that would be interesting to add to these comments. But physical attributes were not what this article was about. It was just about a fascinating point in human history and talking generically about a particular human we all have as an ancestor, which is pretty cool. Not just that this is the case, but that we, so many thousands of years later, have figured out a way to know this definitively. Absolutely amazing. :-)

          • i like your articles, but the professor is exactly right, white folks have a real problem depicting Black folks in a positive light. the idea that color doesnt matter is an attempt by whites to obscure the fact that whites have made color an issue. bottom line you made a understandable mistake that you should learn from. the mother of us all should be pictured as she was, A BLACK WOMAN!!

    • Subliminal messaging at its best. Remember White Jesus?? It took everybody decades to get that imagery out our minds and some still hold on that.

  • I find it quite interesting how this gene is only found in African women but yet there is a picture of a white woman…

    • It’s not a fact that “this gene” is only found in any particular type of person. Mitochondrial DNA is a section of DNA that is found in the mitochondria of every cell, rather than in the nucleus like most of the DNA. Every human has mitochondrial DNA in their cells. Mitochondrial DNA is only passed down by mothers to their children, not by fathers. I suspect this is where the misunderstanding arose.

  • It might be irrelevant to you but there’s a title that says the mother of us all and huge picture of a white woman and that is completely incorrect. Be accurate in representing her likely appearance. There are surely many people who can’t accept that but it’s the truth.

  • Heywood Jabloemi

    This is an interesting time lapse of where the country has gone since 2012. The new PC crowd is trying to archive their self righteous indignation… smh you all need a new hobby. If he included a picture of her likely appearance it would instantly be deemed more racist if you put a picture of a black woman up there looking de-evolved back towards our ape-like ancestors. How would that tickle you fancy? Would you guys like that? A black ape woman? Eff no, even though that is true and accurate you would be on here deriding it as blatant racism. You all, again, seriously need another hobby.

    • What’s wrong with it simply being a pic of a Black woman? If it was simple enough for the writer to post a pic of a white woman who’s not ape looking, why not post a Black woman who’s not ape looking? I’ve actually never even seen a Black woman who looks like an ape :/

  • Why all the whining about a picture, truth is no one knows what the first woman truly looked like, its certainly not provable yet to our science. She may well have had dark or skin, light skin or yellow skin or tan skin or olive skin, who knows. I would say this is picture is as apt as any, if someone else wants to write an article with black woman or a woman of any color it would be just as apt too. Need to wake up people, this woman may be mother to us all, and as such we all have the same right to call her mom.

  • The picture is a distraction and a falsehood. We are all from one source. That source has already been founded to be of and out of Africa.
    Read the below articles on the issue of Melanin, Albinism, Caucasians

  • I read an intereresting story once of how fossils are formed, as the bone deteriorates, talcum powder like dust gets into the pores and cavities and solidifies… Thus when a fossil is complete it consists of dust… now how do you carbon date dust…

    Well I most certainly don’t trust their “conclusions” and “questamations” about the time in which Adam and Eve lived especially considering we do not know how long Adam lived before Eve was created, nor do we know how long Adam and Eve lived, before they sinned. (When they sinned their days became numbered). As for me – from a bible believing perspective, if God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

  • Maybe I should throw the cat in amongst the pigeons ^^
    Well according to my knowledge the garden of Eden was in north Africa (this before the land was divided) and Eve would have been at the very least a familial match to Adam as she was created from Adams rib. We evolved I am sure to cope with our emvironments… someone that settled in Scandanavia would not need the same amount of melamien production as someone who settled on the borders of the sahara dessert.

    If you look at the old world (before travel began) at the top of the world (the cold regions) people had white skin… those who settled at the bottom of the world, the hot climates, people had black skins… and brown in the middle where they mingled :D

  • This should not even require genetic testing, because the nature of the infrastructure should say it all. It should be evident to all and sundry, that the head on the Great Sphinx of Giza is clearly that of an African woman; a black woman. And please don’t try telling me that the white man was first but he opted not to pervert history when he did exactly that by painting white images of Jesus, who according to all the scriptures could only have been a black man; (hair like wool and feet the color of burned brass).

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