I think a lot about Mitochondrial Eve when I lie awake at night.

I do.  I try to deduce as many things as I can about her life without historically unwarranted guesses.  She was, in her time, simply one among the women, and distinguished only by the fact that she must have raised at least two daughters to adulthood.  Since my knowledge of prehistoric life and times is, as time goes on, increasingly based on popular works such as Before the Dawn and The Seven Daughters of Eve (but not the fancruft), it is necessarily flawed.  But I can begin to see her. 

“Eve” — although she should really have been given a different nickname, like M’tdna — lived 140 to 200,000 years ago, probably in Western Africa, but it is unlikely that she looked like the Western Africans of today.  She may have resembled one of the Khoisan, although that is only a better guess because they appear to be the oldest extant human ethnic group.  It is certain that she had dark skin and thick hair.  She did not wear clothing; full-body clothing seems to have begun some 75,000 years ago.  But she may have decorated herself with paint, ornaments and loose string-garments, and engaged in social hair-grooming with her friends.  Menarche probably did not happen to her until age 15 or 16, and until that point — since foragers have no estates or empires to consolidate — she probably felt little pressure to enter a pair-bond.

Bearing a dozen children to a poor household is a custom from an agricultural society, not a foraging society.   M’tdna probably did not feel obligated to have any more children than the two that she did, although she may have borne two or three more.  As her band stayed constantly on the move, she and her age-mates probably practiced infanticide to keep the group mobile and to keep the population in control.   Times were probably rather good during her life, if she managed to rear to adulthood two girls who then had children of their own — even if the girls were not considered lesser beings, such a survival rate was generous.

She may have raised her children with her brother, rather than the children’s father, if her group was agnatic.  She may have been monogamously or polygamously pair-bonded with the children’s father — which is to say, plain old married, whether she was a single wife or one among several.  How much control the man had over her, whoever he was, we could not say. 

If she managed to see two daughters to a childbearing age, she probably reached a decent one herself — 35 or 40.  (Stepmothers would be a poor bet for young people in a marginal society.)  Her family probably did its best to assist her through her final illness or injury, but senilicide may have been her final destination, or even her choice if times were hard.  That would have been it — that would have been all — fifty, perhaps, if she was lucky.

It was a simple life, a small one, and to add more to it is to become the worst kind of historical novelist.  So why am I endlessly fascinated with it?  She was probably a very ordinary woman.  She might have been vain, cruel, manipulative, dull — she was a survivor, that alone is certain.  But I could look at her life the way she could have looked at the stars in the sky.

. . .I don’t know if the stars are campfires in the sky. Or holes in a skin through which the flame of power looks down on us. Sometimes I think one way. Sometimes I think a different way. Once I thought there are no campfires and no holes but something else, too hard for me to understand.

Rest your neck on a log. Your head goes back. Then you can see only the sky. No hills, no trees, no hunterfolk, no campfire. Just sky. Sometimes I feel I may fall up into the sky. If the stars are campfires, I would like to visit those other hunterfolk – the ones who wander. Then I feel good about falling up. But if the stars are holes in a skin, I become afraid. I don’t want to fall up through a hole and into the flame of power.

I wish I knew which was true. I don’t like not knowing.

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

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