Monday, May 21, 2007

The Origins of the British - Stephen Oppenheimer

In his book, The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer examines British and Irish history from a genetic perspective (mtDNA and Y-chromosome analysis).

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited unchanged (except for chance mutations) from your mother, whilst the Y-chromosome is inherited unchanged from your father (except for chance mutations which are more likely as this chunk of DNA is bigger than mtDNA). Most of the chance mutations in these DNA chunks have no effect and so just build up over generations, allowing geneticists to construct family trees based on the differences. The rate of mutation is fairly low, for mtDNA there's just one mutation in 1000 generations on average.

Britain and Ireland in the last Ice Age (15,000 years ago) were covered in ice caps and uninhabited polar desert; European populations survived in the evocatively named Ice Age Refuges: in Ukraine and Eastern Europe; in Italy; and in south-west Europe either side of the Pyrenees. The climate and lifestyles would presumably have been similar to that of Siberian tribes or North American Inuit.

Once the ice receded, people from the Ice Age refuges started spreading out and eventually colonised what would become Britain and Ireland. Oppenheimer's key point is that the vast majority of British and Irish (68-88% of people, depending where you live) are descended from these first inhabitants: hunter-gatherers who arrived during the stone age before farming.

The vast majority of these came originally from the south-west European Ice Age refuge around what is now the Basque country. The other, albeit smaller, source of inhabitants is people who originated in the south-east European Ice Age refuge, who would have come into the Eastern side of Britain from the opposite sides of the North Sea. Oppenheimer says that some of these people arrived before the advent of farming, some after.

What this effectively does is demolish all the old theories that had successive waves of invasion and migration spreading over these islands and replacing previous populations. So Neolithic farmers didn't arrive and out-breed the locals, instead the locals must have taken up farming; Iron Age Celts didn't arrive and wipe out their Bronze Age predecessors; and Anglo-Saxons did not perpetrate genocide against indigenous Celts in Dark Age England.

Another theory he demolishes is that when Britain was conquered by the Romans the population was entirely Celtic-speaking. This has been assumed mainly because the post-Roman Angles and Saxons have been described as invaders in the few texts that survive from the end of the Roman Empire.

After reviewing the genetic, historical, archaeological and linguistic issues, Oppenheimer concludes that Celtic populations were living in the same areas that they occupied in later historical times: Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Western Scotland; and that the main Eastern populations (in England and Scotland) were culturally Germanic/Scandinavian (reflecting the cultural links across the North Sea) - this would help to explain why English has hardly any Celtic words in it and, whilst obviously related to Dutch and German, seems to have split off from them much earlier than Anglo-Saxon times.

It had always struck me as odd, the idea that the Angles supposedly came from a little bit of Denmark called Angeln but had sufficient numbers to conquer the whole of what became the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria - half of Engand. If Angeln had been a powerful city-state commanding huge tracts of Northern Europe then perhaps it would make sense.

No comments: