By GREG LANGLEY
Published: Jan 14, 2007
SAXONS, VIKINGS AND CELTS:
THE GENETIC ROOTS OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND
By Bryan Sykes
W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95
We all want to know who we are. That’s the allure of genealogy. A lot of people whose ancestors originate in Ireland, Scotland and Wales believe they know who they are: they’re Celts.
And who are the Celts? They’re an Indo-European tribe that began in Central Europe whose art featured intricate geometric designs and who tended to wear plaid clothes and body paint. The Celts, so the party line goes, were fierce warriors who swore allegiance to “clans” and swept across Europe and the English Channel displacing the indigenous people, maybe even killing them all off. They were in the British Isles when the Romans got there. The Celts left artifacts, spoken languages and legends that corroborate the story but no written histories.
Wait just a minute, Sykes says.
Sykes is a scientist — a geneticist to be exact — who is from Great Britain. He was a pioneer in developing tests to extract DNA from the teeth and bones of ancient humans and even Neanderthals. That research led him to ponder the question “is this DNA still around in living people?” It is — at least the human DNA is.
Sykes is a pretty engaging writer, with a sense of drama and a remarkably simple and concise vocabulary that enables him to avoid the murky Latin nomenclature that renders so many scientific books unintelligible. His description of the development of DNA testing is a model of simple yet accurate science writing. He says that when doctors began to experiment with blood transfusions, they found that some people could be transfused with certain other people’s blood with no ill effects, but sometimes the transfusions resulted in deadly reactions. They wondered why. That led to the discovery of blood types by Austrian physiologist Karl Landsteiner and that led to the discovery that certain racial and geographic groups tended to have certain combinations of the four blood groups (A, B, O and AB).
Anthropologists, who’d been looking for a foolproof system to classify races, began to see possibilities in these tendencies. Before, they’d had to rely on subjective observation of things like hair and eye color, shape of skulls and body forms. Sykes says the blood types proved to be less than useful since all four types occur in all populations, and the different ratios are sometimes duplicated in far distant populations.
“Blood groups, despite the advantage of objectivity, are a very blunt instrument indeed with which to dissect the genetic history of a relatively small region like the Isles,” he writes. Then he gets into the discovery of DNA, how the Y-chromosome can be used to identify male lines and the mitochondrial DNA can be used to identify female lines.
By processing thousands of blood samples and, later, cheek swabs of DNA cells, Sykes and his colleagues were able to identify certain DNA lines that were common to all the people in Western Europe. By examining the mutations on certain sections of these DNA strands, they could calculate the age of the sample. They isolated seven lines that, remarkably, seem to have originated with seven women — that led to the book The Seven Daughters of Eve.
In Adam’s Curse, Sykes does a similar thing for the male component — the Y-chromosome. “from research done throughout the world over the past decade, Y-chromosomes can now be separated into twenty-one paternal clans, eight of which occur in Europe.”
A person who has his DNA tested will get a series of numbers back and those numbers can be translated into a haplotype, something like R1B1. That’s pretty unexciting. Sykes decided to give the lines names such as Ursula for one of the women and Oisin for one of the men, and to make an informed guess as to where they lived and when. He then wrote short biographies of each clan mother or clan father and used that to apply to findings of his test.
A person whose mitochondrial DNA showed descent from Ursula was a daughter or son of Ursula and so on for all the clan mothers and clan fathers. It was a great public relations move, one so successful that Oxford University, Sykes’ employer, had to create a separate company, Oxford Ancestors, to process all the requests for DNA tests. They provide the service for a tidy fee.
This book is sort of a combination of Sykes’s earlier findings and an analysis of what they mean to British history.
Sykes found that there was no Celtic invasion that displaced earlier residents of Britain. The people who are the ancestors of modern Scots, Irish, Welsh and most English came across the land bridge to Europe during the last period of glaciation, around 9,000 years ago (about the same time Asians were crossing the Bering Strait land bridge to populate the Americas). They came into an empty country.
“It is almost always, in my experience, the earliest occupants who dominate the gene pool of a region,” Sykes writes.
Most histories make distinctions between the Picts in Scotland and England and the Irish in Ireland. The DNA data collected from their living descendants tell another story.
“Irish and Pictish Y-chromosomes are almost identical,” Sykes writes.
While Sykes found some variation in the British Isles, especially in the Y-chromosome in areas that had been conquered by Vikings or Anglo-Saxons, these were minor and never amount to more than 20 percent in any one area and are usually much less. The Norman contribution to the British genetic legacy is even less — “2 percent or below even in the south of England.”
On the maternal side, it’s even clearer. “On our maternal side, almost all of us are Celts,” he writes of the Isles.
Who then are these Celts? The answer is in the DNA and that answer is Spanish.
“I can see no evidence at all of a large-scale immigration from central Europe to Ireland and west of the Isles generally, such as has been used to explain the presence there of the main body of ‘Gaels’ or ‘Celts.’ The ‘Celts’ of Ireland and the Western Isles are not, as far as I can see from the genetic evidence, related to the Celts who spread south and east to Italy, Greece and Turkey from the heartlands of Hallstadt and La Tène in the shadows of the Alps during the first millennium BC,” Sykes concludes.
“The genetic evidence shows that a large proportion of Irish Celts, on both the male and female side, did arrive from Iberia at or about the same time as farming reached the Isles.” Those are his major conclusions. How he reached them is told in this book. It is a lively combination of science, medicine, history and mythology that will interest not just genealogists but armchair anthropologists and National Geographic Channel junkies as well.
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