Bryan Sykes has traced his family tree back, way back, back almost to the Garden of Eden. And now the Oxford Professor of Human Genetics has identified seven women who are the mothers of Europe.

These matriarchs lived between 8,000 and 45,000 years ago but their genetic legacy survives. Each 'Daughter of Eve' has millions of descendants, which Sykes divided into 'clans'.

He has a soft spot for Tara, his blue-eyed, brown-haired, olive-skinned ancestral mother. Her offspring left Tuscany 17,000 years ago, trekked through northern Europe and across the dry Channel, then settled in Ireland. "She was obviously physically fit and she must have been a good mother, able to hunt if she had to," he explains. The professors hopes some day to name a daughter after this primitive Super Mum.

The other women have been dubbed Ursula, Xenia, Helena, Katrine, Valda and Jasmine. Don't be misled by such whimsy, however, this is serious science.

The Institute of Molecular Medicine team studied something called 'mitochondrial' DNA. This is the type that is passed down unchanged from mothers to children. This genetic alphabet is rarely altered by mutations, so it was easy to analyse and classify our ancestors. Sykes tested the technique on Syrian hamsters. For months, packets of droppings rattled about in his post bag. When the experiment revealed one great golden rodent mother, he switched to human genealogy.

He wisely opted for cheek cells this time around and found mtDNA in Polynesians matched that in south-east Asians, settling a long-standing mystery. After sifting though 6,000 samples, the seven Mother Superiors emerged.

Surprisingly, clans don't cluster along geographic lines, except the Lapps in northern Norway and Finland. "Everywhere in Europe, people have a bit of everything, even in the Scandinavian countries," the professor says. "So these results make a nonsense of a genetic basis for ethnic division." His new company, Oxford Ancestors, offers to trace your clan, that is, to "interpret your deep maternal ancestry". Whether this sense of kinship is worth 120 is another matter entirely.

The pay's not bad, considering that he stumbled on to this research phenomenon accidentally. Back in 1986, Sykes was asked to investigate some medieval bones on a supermarket construction site near Oxford. Archaeologists assumed the DNA had disappeared centuries ago, broken down by bacteria.

Yet tiny amounts were amplified to unlock the secrets of the past. The technique was then used to reunite Cheddar Man, the 9,000-year-old corpse found in a Somerset cave, with his descendent, a schoolteacher, who lived nearby. The genetic expert has also turned his eye to criminal investigations. From a sample of DNA present in blood, hair, skin and semen Sykes may soon be able to pinpoint a man's surname.

"Preliminary results show a strong association between Y-chromosome fingerprint and surname. Police would not get a conviction on the basis of this. But it would certainly give them important leads," he says of this useful if morbid process.The Seven Daughters of Eve are a much more feel-good endeavour, which illuminates our amazing genetic inheritance. As Professor Sykes points out, these DNA strands are survivors, having soldiered on through an Ice Age and the freezing migration across Europe. Yet these tough little genes inspire sensitivity too: "Knowing your ancestry gives you a sense of self, a connection with other people."

Whether enlightening or just a comfort, family trees are now there for the unveiling.

Let's hope they don't just bear forbidden fruit.

Story date: April 26, 2000