Mother’s Day Science Poem: Mitochondrial Mothers

Heid E. Erdrich’s “Seven Mothers” (2012)

(Originally posted here in August 2012, this poem is worth a read on Mother’s Day.)

Despite my experiences of crushing boredom studying cell trafficking pathways in grad school, there was no way I was going to just walk past a book of poems titled Cell Traffic without stopping. In this delightful book, poet Heid E. Erdrich mixes themes of genetics, motherhood, ancestry, and Native American mythology to produce poetry that feels very relevant in a day when we can read information about our ancestry from the text of our DNA.

Today’s Sunday Poem is “Seven Mothers.” The title refers to the seven major, maternally inherited mitochondrial haplogroups popularized by Bryan Sykes in The Seven Daughters of Eve. Since Sykes’ book was published, we have developed a greater ability to use genetic variation in our nuclear DNA to trace our ancestry, and mitochondrial DNA now plays less of a role in our efforts to understand human ancestry than it once did. But it’s hard to beat the impact of mitochondrial maternal ancestry on our imaginations.

Heid E. Erdrich

In “Seven Mothers,” Heid Erdrich reflects on the remarkable idea that within our cellular ‘furnaces’ lies information that allows us to trace our maternal inheritance back to a single individual who lived in what for all intents and purposes is the deep mythological past. Who were these individuals who managed to become the ancestors of billions?

Erdrich shows us that the answer to this question lies at the intersection of science and mythology. From our vantage point, our mitochondrial mothers may seem mythological, but in their time they were ordinary mothers. They had names and personalities. They were indistinguishable from their sisters and friends, and yet these few lucky mothers, unlike their sisters and friends, become the direct ancestors of today’s major human populations.

Seven Mothers 

Imagine an engine
in each cell, the furnace
of flesh built in each of us.

Imagine in each fire pit,
information, scads of it
about who it was
first made us.

The seven mitochondrial Eves
might be muses
or mothers from above
sent with heaven’s love.

These seven Eves stay with us,
their print within our cells.

I should like to name them,
and why not?
No seven Adams remain 
to claim the naming task.

One mother should be Winona,
first born, and one Sky Woman.

One should be Kali, creative terror,
and one is Prudence - yes,
you know some folks are like that.

One Judy, or the equivalent in every tongue,
because Judy just sounds like Mom and
so does Bernice, Maria Therese,
or maybe Donna.

And last, I name thee Eve,
or Dawn or First Light Woman,
or maybe Mitochondria-Mom only,
a name that makes Octo-Mom
look lonely.

“Seven Mothers”, Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems by Heid E. Erdrich © 2012 Heid E. Erdrich. Reprinted by kind permission of the University of Arizona Press.

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