Bryan Sykes

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Bryan Sykes
Bryan Clifford Sykes

(1947-09-09)9 September 1947
Died10 December 2020(2020-12-10) (aged 73)
EducationEltham College, Liverpool University (B.Sc.), Bristol University (Ph.D.)
Known forThe Seven Daughters of Eve; analysis of mitochondrial and Y chromosome data
Scientific career
InstitutionsWolfson College, Oxford, University of Oxford (D. Sc.)

Bryan Clifford Sykes (9 September 1947 – 10 December 2020) was a British geneticist and science writer who was a Fellow of Wolfson College and Emeritus Professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford.[1][2]

Sykes published the first report on retrieving DNA from ancient bone (Nature, 1989). He was involved in a number of high-profile cases dealing with ancient DNA, including that of Ötzi the Iceman. He also suggested a Florida accountant by the name of Tom Robinson was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, a claim that was subsequently disproved.[3][4][5][6]

Sykes is best known outside the community of geneticists for his two popular books on the investigation of human history and prehistory through studies of mitochondrial DNA.


Sykes was educated at Eltham College, received his BSc from the University of Liverpool, his PhD from the University of Bristol, and his DSc from the University of Oxford.[2]


The Seven Daughters of Eve[edit]

In 2001 (Banta Press Hardback) Sykes published a book for the popular audience, The Seven Daughters of Eve, in which he explained how the dynamics of maternal mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inheritance leave their mark on the human population in the form of genetic clans sharing common maternal descent. He notes that the majority of Europeans can be classified in seven such clans, known scientifically as haplogroups, distinguishable by differences in their mtDNA that are unique to each group, with each clan descending from a separate prehistoric female-line ancestor. He referred to these seven 'clan mothers' as 'daughters of Eve', a reference to the mitochondrial Eve to whom the mtDNA of all modern humans traces. Based on the geographical and ethnological distribution of the modern descendants of each clan he assigned provisional homelands for the seven clan mothers, and used the degree to which each clan diverges to approximate the time period when the clan mother would have lived. He then uses these deductions to give 'biographies' for each of the clan mothers, assigning them arbitrary names based on the scientific designation of their haplogroup (for example, using the name Xenia for the founder of haplogroup X).

Blood of the Isles[edit]

In his 2006 book Blood of the Isles (published in the United States and Canada as Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland), Sykes examines British genetic "clans". He presents evidence from mitochondrial DNA, inherited by both sexes from their mothers, and the Y chromosome, inherited by men from their fathers, and makes the following claims:

  • The genetic makeup of Britain and Ireland is overwhelmingly what it has been since the Neolithic period and to a very considerable extent since the Mesolithic period, especially in the female line, i.e. those people, who in time would become identified as British Celts (culturally speaking), but who (genetically speaking) should more properly be called Cro-Magnon.[citation needed] In continental Europe, this same Cro-Magnon genetic legacy gave rise to the Basques. "Basque" and "Celt" are cultural designations, not genetic ones.[citation needed]
  • The contribution of the Celts of Central Europe to the genetic makeup of Britain and Ireland was minimal; most of the genetic contribution to the British Isles of those we think of as Celtic, came from western continental Europe, i.e. the Atlantic seaboard.
  • The Picts were not a separate people: the genetic makeup of the formerly Pictish areas of Scotland shows no significant differences from the general profile of the rest of Britain. The two "Pictland" regions are Tayside and Grampian.
  • The Anglo-Saxons are supposed, by some, to have made a substantial contribution to the genetic makeup of England, but in Sykes's opinion it was under 20 percent of the total, even in Southern England.
  • The Vikings (Danes and Norwegians) also made a substantial contribution, which is concentrated in central, northern and eastern England – the territories of the ancient Danelaw. There is a very heavy Viking contribution in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, in the vicinity of 40 percent. Women as well as men contributed substantially in all these areas, showing that the Vikings engaged in large-scale settlement.
  • The Norman contribution was extremely small, on the order of 2 percent.
  • There are only sparse traces of the Roman occupation, almost all in Southern England.
  • In spite of all these later contributions, the genetic makeup of the British Isles remains overwhelmingly what it was in the Neolithic: a mixture of the first Mesolithic inhabitants with Neolithic settlers who came by sea from Iberia and ultimately from the eastern Mediterranean.
  • There is a difference between the genetic histories of men and women in Britain and Ireland. The matrilineages show a mixture of original Mesolithic inhabitants and later Neolithic arrivals from Iberia, whereas the patrilineages are much more strongly correlated with Iberia.
  • There is evidence for a "Genghis Khan effect", whereby some male lineages in ancient times were much more successful than others in leaving large numbers of descendants; e.g. Niall of the Nine Hostages in 4th and 5th century Ireland and Somerled in 12th century Scotland.

Sykes used a similar approach to that used in The Seven Daughters of Eve to identify the nine "clan mothers" of Japanese ancestry, "all different from the seven European equivalents."[7]

Modern evidence[edit]

With the advent of whole-genome sequencing and analysis of ancient DNA, many of Sykes' theories regarding the origins of the British have been largely invalidated. A 2018 study argues that over 90% of the DNA of the Neolithic population of Britain was overturned by a North European Bell Beaker population, originating from the Pontic Steppes, as part of an ongoing migration process that brought large amounts of Steppe DNA (including the R1b haplogroup) to North and West Europe.[8] Modern autosomal genetic clustering is testament to this fact, as both modern and Iron Age British and Irish samples cluster genetically very closely with other North European populations, rather than Iberians, Galicians, Basques or those from the south of France.[9][10] Similar studies have concluded that the Anglo-Saxons, while not replacing the previous populations outright, may have contributed more to the gene pool in much of England than Sykes had claimed.[11][12][13]

Alleged hominid samples[edit]

Sykes and his team at Oxford University carried out DNA analysis of presumed Yeti samples and thinks the samples may have come from a hybrid species of bear produced from a mating between a brown bear and a polar bear. Sykes told BBC News:

I think this bear, which nobody has seen alive, may still be there and may have quite a lot of polar bear in it. It may be some sort of hybrid and if its behaviour is different from normal bears, which is what eyewitnesses report, then I think that may well be the source of the mystery and the source of the legend.

— Dr. Bryan Sykes, BBC News (17 October 2013)[14][15]

He conducted another similar survey in 2014, this time examining samples attributed not just to yeti but also to Bigfoot and other "anomalous primates." The study concluded that two of the 30 samples tested most closely resembled the genome of a palaeolithic polar bear, and that the other 28 were from living mammals.[16]

The samples were subsequently re-analysed by Ceiridwen Edwards and Ross Barnett. They concluded that the mutation that had led to the match with a polar bear was a damaged artefact, and suggested that the two hair samples were in fact from Himalayan brown bears (U. arctos isabellinus). These bears are known in Nepal as Dzu-the (a Nepalese term meaning cattle-bear), and have been associated with the myth of the yeti.[17][18] Sykes and Melton acknowledged that their GenBank search was in error but suggested that the hairs were instead a match to a modern polar bear specimen "from the Diomede Islands in the Bering Sea reported in the same paper". They maintained that they did not see any sign of damage in their sequences and commented that they had "no reason to doubt the accuracy of these two sequences any more than the other 28 presented in the paper".[19] Multiple further analyses, including replication of the single analysis conducted by Sykes and his team, were carried out in a study conducted by Eliécer E. Gutiérrez, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and Ronald H. Pine, affiliated at the University of Kansas. All of these analyses found that the relevant genetic variation in brown bears makes it impossible to assign, with certainty, the Himalayan samples to either that species or to the polar bear. Because brown bears occur in the Himalayas, Gutiérrez and Pine stated that there is no reason to believe that the samples in question came from anything other than ordinary Himalayan brown bears.[20]

Personal life[edit]

Sykes married Sue Foden, whom he met as a student in Oxford. They were married from 1978 to 1984, but remained close, and their son Richard was born in 1991. Sykes was a keen croquet player, representing Ireland in the 1984 Home Internationals.[21] Sykes died in December 2020. [22]

Selected works[edit]

  • Sykes, Bryan (1999), The Human Inheritance: Genes, Language, and Evolution, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-850274-6
  • —— (2002), The Seven Daughters of Eve, Corgi, ISBN 978-0-552-14876-4 (see The Seven Daughters of Eve)
  • —— (2003), Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men, Bantam, ISBN 978-0-593-05004-0 (see Adam's Curse)
  • —— (2006), Blood of the Isles: Exploring the Genetic Roots of Our Tribal History, Bantam, ISBN 978-0-593-05652-3
  • —— (2011), DNA USA: A Genetic Biography of America, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-07804-6
  • —— (2015), The Nature of the Beast, Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 978-1-444-79126-6
  • —— (2016), Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Last Neanderthal: A Geneticist's Search for Modern Apemen
  • —— (2019), Once a Wolf: The Science Behind Our Dogs' Astonishing Genetic Evolution, Liveright, ISBN 978-1-63149-379-9


  1. ^ Leake, J. Scientist savaged for bigfoot claim Sunday Times, 29 March 2015.
  2. ^ a b Debrett's People of Today Archived 11 February 2017 at the Wayback Machine Debrett's People of Today. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  3. ^ Tom Robinson (16 June 2006), Genghis Khan or Not? That is the Question (Internet Archive version)., Self published, archived from the original on 13 December 2006, retrieved 31 January 2013
  4. ^ Matching Genghis Khan,, archived from the original on 8 March 2009, retrieved 3 June 2008
  5. ^ Henderson, Mark (30 May 2006), "How I am related to Genghis Khan", The Times, London, archived from the original on 15 April 2015, retrieved 27 April 2010
  6. ^ Nicholas Wade. Falling from Genghis's family tree Archived 9 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine The New York Times, 21 June 2006. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  7. ^ Japanese women seek their ancestral roots in Oxford Archived 3 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine by Tessa Holland, 25 June 2006, Kyodo News
  8. ^ Olalde, Iñigo; Brace, Selina; Allentoft, Morten E.; Armit, Ian; Kristiansen, Kristian; Booth, Thomas; Rohland, Nadin; Mallick, Swapan; Szécsényi-Nagy, Anna; Mittnik, Alissa; Altena, Eveline (8 March 2018). "The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe". Nature. 555 (7695): 190–196. Bibcode:2018Natur.555..190O. doi:10.1038/nature25738. ISSN 0028-0836. PMC 5973796. PMID 29466337.
  9. ^ Novembre, J; et al. (November 2008), "Genes mirror geography within Europe", Nature, 456 (7218): 98–101, Bibcode:2008Natur.456...98N, doi:10.1038/nature07331, PMC 2735096, PMID 18758442
  10. ^ Lao O, Lu TT, Nothnagel M, et al. (August 2008), "Correlation between genetic and geographic structure in Europe", Curr. Biol., 18 (16): 1241–8, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.07.049, PMID 18691889
  11. ^ Schiffels, S. et al. (2016) Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history Archived 17 December 2019 at the Wayback Machine, Nature Communications 7, Article number:10408 doi:10.1038/ncomms10408
  12. ^ Ross P. Byrne, Rui Martiniano, Lara M. Cassidy, Matthew Carrigan, Garrett Hellenthal, Orla Hardiman, Daniel G. Bradley, Russell McLaughlin: "Insular Celtic population structure and genomic footprints of migration" (2018)
  13. ^ Martiniano, R., Caffell, A., Holst, M. et al. Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons. Nat Commun 7, 10326 (2016). Archived 21 February 2022 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Staff (17 October 2013). "British scientist 'solves' mystery of Himalayan yetis". BBC News. Archived from the original on 5 May 2019. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
  15. ^ Lawless, Jill (17 October 2013). "DNA Links Mysterious Yeti To Ancient Polar Bear". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 23 October 2013. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
  16. ^ Sykes, B. C.; Mullis, R. A.; Hagenmuller, C.; Melton, T. W.; Sartori, M. (2 July 2014). "Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 281 (1789): 20140161. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.0161. PMC 4100498. PMID 24990672.
  17. ^ Edwards, CJ; Barnett, R (2015). "Himalayan 'yeti' DNA: polar bear or DNA degradation? A comment on 'Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti' by Sykes et al. (2014)". Proc. R. Soc. B. 282 (1800): 20141712. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1712. PMC 4298200. PMID 25520353.
  18. ^ McKenzie S. Scientists challenge "abominable snowman" DNA results Archived 31 May 2018 at the Wayback Machine. BBC News Highlands and Islands, 17 December 2014.
  19. ^ Melton, TW; Sartori, M; Sykes, BC (2015). "Response to Edward and Barnett". Proc. R. Soc. B. 282 (1800): 20142434. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.2434. PMC 4298211. PMID 25520360.
  20. ^ Gutiérrez, Eliécer E.; Pine, Ronald H. (2015). "No need to replace an "anomalous" primate (Primates) with an "anomalous" bear (Carnivora, Ursidae)". ZooKeys (487): 141–154. Bibcode:2015ZooK..487..141G. doi:10.3897/zookeys.487.9176. PMC 4366689. PMID 25829853. Archived from the original on 8 April 2016. Retrieved 15 January 2018.
  21. ^ Gunasekara, Dayal; Murray, Martin (February 2021). "Obituary - Prof. Bryan Sykes". Croquet Gazette. The Croquet Association.
  22. ^ Georgina Ferry (18 December 2020). "Bryan Sykes obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 20 December 2020. Retrieved 19 December 2020.

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