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An Oxford University professor’s ‘Eureka!’ moment on Rarotonga

Saturday 26 December 2020 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Weekend

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An Oxford University professor’s ‘Eureka!’ moment on Rarotonga
The late Professor Bryan Sykes. Ibabooks.com/ 20122413

A collision between a Rarotonga hire-bike and a coconut tree led to a Eureka moment for an Oxford professor, who passed away last week. Rod Dixon pays tribute to the distinguished human geneticist.

Many Rarotonga residents may recall a lecture at the Library and Museum Society in 2003, on the topic “Polynesian origins - ever wanted to know where you come from?”.

It was a wet evening with a thunderstorm looming and no great attendance was expected. Yet, as curator Jean Mason recalls, it turned out to be one of the most packed and popular lectures held on the island.

That evening’s lecturer, Professor Bryan Sykes, a distinguished human geneticist from Oxford University, died last week at the age of 73.

Many of his obituaries have drawn attention to the Eureka moment that followed a collision between Professor Sykes and a coconut tree on Rarotonga in 1991.

“I rented a small motorcycle,” recalled Professor Sykes, “passed the driving test, which consisted of driving fifty metres up the road and back to the police station, got my license, and set off. Right towards a palm tree. I broke my shoulder.”

The shoulder fracture forced Sykes to prolong his stay on Rarotonga while his bones mended.

He recuperated at the Little Polynesian under the watchful eye of “the cheerful, ruddy, Malcolm Laxton-Blinkhorn” who is acknowledged numerous times in Syke’s bestselling book “The Seven Daughters of Eve”.

Sykes recalls sitting on the beach at the Little Polynesian, and gazing out at the endless ocean and wondering “How could the Polynesians discover and colonise this island, and where did they come from?”

“So, the next time I went to the Rarotonga hospital to have my shoulder fracture checked, I explained that I was a geneticist and what had occurred to me. I don’t know how I managed to convince the hospital to give me the residues of thirty-five blood samples left over from blood glucose tests.

“I stored the samples in the hotel’s refrigerator, and when my shoulder healed – too quickly, it seemed to me – I took the precious little tubes of blood to Australia, where they were almost confiscated by Customs, and from there to England and my laboratory.”

His plan was to identify and sequence mitochondrial DNA in the Cook Islands samples. Then to match these to other samples and studies and thereby trace the ancestors of the current Cook Islands population. Mitochondrial DNA remains virtually unchanged (apart from occasional chance mutations) as it passes from mother to daughter, over the generations.

After initial promising results, Sykes returned to Rarotonga and with the help of Dr. George Koteka and chief laboratory officer Peri Vaevae Pare, collected 500 blood samples from Rarotonga, Atiu, Aitutaki, Mangaia, Pukapuka, Rakahanga, Manihiki, and Palmerston. He packed them carefully in ice and took them back to Oxford for analysis.

During 1992 the samples were sequenced and compared with results from America and Asia.  The conclusion was unequivocal.

“The genetic trail to the scattered islands of the vast Pacific was now crystal clear. The ancestors of the Polynesians undertook their epic journey from the coast of China or in Taiwan.”

Looking back, Sykes wrote of his Rarotongan sojourn –

“I had stopped on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, gazing out to sea beyond the reef and possessed by a burning curiosity to find the answer to a question…It was a question arising out of mere curiosity.

"And we had found the answer, clear and unequivocal, in little more than three years. Having ascertained how conclusively mitochondrial DNA had resolved the question of the origin of the Polynesians, I felt great confidence in its inherent ability to solve even more difficult questions in territory much closer to home.”

Some of these questions, included the origins of the Europeans which he subsequently attributed in his book “The Seven Daughters of Eve” to seven clan mothers, living between 8500 and 45,000 years ago.  They, in turn, shared descent from a single mitochondrial ‘Eve’ who lived in Africa even earlier and from whom all modern humans are descended.

Other research included identification of the origin of Ötzi the Ice Man, discovered in 1991 after being trapped for some 9000 years in a glacier in northern Italy.

As well as being a distinguished fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, Professor Sykes was the keeper of its wine cellar. He reciprocated Malcolm Laxton-Blinkhorn’s hospitality with an invitation to dinner in Oxford with some Irish friends.

After a meal of wild pheasant and a number of wines, he invited his guests to a tour of his laboratory. “It was,” says Laxton-Blinkhorn, “one of the most boring labs one can imagine. But during the tour, Bryan took a follicle from the hair of one of the Irish guests, Mrs. Marie Moseley. It turned out, unbelievably, that she was a descendant of the 9000 years old Iceman.”

In a separate investigation, Sykes was also able to confirm that human remains found in 1991 in Russia were probably those of the executed Tsar Alexander and his family; and that a woman who had claimed to be a surviving daughter of the Tsar, Anastasia, was an imposter. This involved comparing DNA recovered from the human remains with the DNA of a maternal relative of the Tsar, namely Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Professor Sykes also claimed a link between Y chromosomes and surnames, telling the New York Times, “I’ve tested hundreds of people named ‘‘Sykes’’ and found that roughly 70 per cent of us have the same Y chromosome, and therefore, must be descended from one man.”

As is the nature of science, the advent of next-generation sequencing has led to higher-resolution results that have subsequently challenged some of Sykes’ work.

Professor Sykes published four books for general readers. In addition to The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001), these included Adam’s Curse (2003), Blood of the Isles (2006) and DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America (2012).

He was also the founder and chairman of the Oxford University company, Oxford Ancestors, which helps individuals explore their genetic roots using DNA.