Monday, December 01, 2008

The Origins of the British

Here’s a very brief summary of Stephen Oppenheimer’s heavyweight re-examination of the origins of the peoples of the British Isles.

In the very beginning was the unique exodus out of Africa, around 85,000 years ago at the southern end of the Red Sea. Europe itself was populated by the Cro-Magnon people from around 50,000 years ago – exploiting a favourable climatic change which opened up a northerly route through the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia. However, the most recent ice-age reversed the colonisation process in northern Europe.

At the peak of the last ice age, the Last Glacial Maximum between 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, sea levels were 120 metres lower than today. The British Isles were merely the north west peninsula of Europe (no North Sea or Channel) and ice caps covered Britain down to Oxford. The rest of the British Isles and Northern France was a polar desert, uninhabitable, and our European ancestors had retreated to more temperate refuges: the Basque refuge around northern Spain and southern France; a Ukrainian refuge to the east; and a Balkans refuge near the Black Sea.

Britain was recolonised as the ice age came to an end, around 15,000 years ago. Who were these people? They came from the Basque refuge, were genetically similar to the Basque people today, and probably spoke a language similar to Basque - this was before Indo-European languages. They were hunter-gatherers who brought down big game on the grass steppes which had replaced the polar desert in Britain and Ireland (at this stage still all one peninsula).

Between 13,000 and 11,500 years ago it again got very, very cold (the Younger Dryas). However, a small population hung on in Britain and Ireland. The period after the Younger Dryas is called the Mesolithic, extending from around 10,000 to 6,500 years ago. During the Mesolithic, a further wave of recolonisation entered the British Isles from Northern Spain, again following the ‘beachcombing’ coastal route up the Atlantic coast of France and past Brittany. The present day populations of Wales and Ireland are 80-90% genetically identical to this original founding population.

These founders did not, of course, stop at Britain/Ireland. They continued to Scandinavia and beyond, and penetrated inland along the river systems into France, Germany and Denmark. There, they met different gene flows coming West from the other two refuges in Ukraine and the Baltic. These more mixed groups would become the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Vikings and so on.

Around 6,500 years ago the Neolithic farming revolution finally arrived at Britain. Again, there were two routes: one along the Atlantic coast, the other via central and north-west Europe. At this stage the North Sea was still a plain, and there was much tribal mixing between adjacent populations in ‘England’ and the ‘near-Continent’.

The climate had meanwhile changed, creating vast forests in north-west Europe. These were not good for hunter-gatherers, who tended to live more at the coast. Neolithic farming could, however, cut down trees and plant crops, or husband domestic animals; so there was a kind of possible symbiotic ecology between the hunters and farmers.

With the farmers came Indo-European languages (Celtish, Germanic and Romance, etc). The Celts appear to have been a large tribal grouping of Gauls who occupied the region between northern Spain and the line of the Seine-Marne in Northern France. As they controlled the bulk of the Atlantic coast, they dominated trade links with Cornwall, Wales and Ireland to their north. This seems to be the original introduction mechanism of Celtic languages such as Cornish, Welsh and Gaelic, supplanting the previous languages in those countries.

However, there appears to have been very little incursion of Celtic population: Oppenheimer’s genetic analysis suggests less than 4% in Ireland, 10% in Wales and 8-11% in Southern England. Meanwhile, as we move to around 3,000 years ago, he suggests that there were stable and substantial Saxon communities in the English South-East – linked to the Belgae across the water, while Scandinavian Angles and Jutes (from today’s Denmark) occupied East Anglia and points farther north on England’s north-east side.

This, then, would have been the situation when the Romans arrived. Subsequent Dark-Ages ‘invasions’ of Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Vikings etc didn’t change the population genetics much – just a few percentage points. They tended to congregate where their kinsfolk had previously established themselves. As the Dark Ages moved to a close, the Anglo-Saxons finally seized political control in England from the Celtic-speaking groups (the Britons) and then defeated the ‘Danelaw’ Viking incursions.

So the main bottom line here is that it’s a mistake to think that the aboriginal inhabitants of these islands were ‘Celts’. Genetically most of the people here are from the original South-West Europe founding population, more than 8,000 years ago. And Celtic, a relatively recent new language, was never spoken across the whole of the Isles. Ancient English, a Germanic language, would have been spoken in the South East while a Scandinavian (‘proto-Norse’) language would have been spoken in the North-East. And there were no genocides – just a process of normal tribal warface and acculturation.

Interestingly, Oppenheimer mentions the well-known genetic divide (roughly following the line of Offa’s Dyke) between the Welsh and the English. Despite the similarity in Y-chromosome and maternal mitochondrial DNA lines between the peoples of the British Isles, we all have many more ancestors than these two extremal lines. Most English people will have a complex admixture of ‘Celtic’, Angle, Saxon and Scandinavian genes in their complete family tree. The Welsh and Irish have had far, far less exposure over the millennia to these ‘non-Celtic’ populations.

So I take back my conclusion in a previous post, that on both maternal and paternal sides, my genes say I’m Celt. They actually say that my paternal and maternal lines are aboriginal British (which is not pejorative).

I suspect that my maternal ancestor around 2-3,000 years ago did speak a Welsh-like Celtic language, based on where she probably was, in the English South-West - for the paternal ancestor, see the next post.

But before that they spoke a non-indo-European Basque-like language - which I have no plans to learn in solidarity!

However, I will have many, many other ancestors who contributed genes from the other English peoples, which is why I’m English and not –for example – genetically part of the Welsh or Irish clusters.

For more, in particular about the Scots and Picts, which I have entirely ignored, read Oppenheimer’s book.

Next Post: more about detailed Y-Chromosome testing

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