Friday, 8 April 2011

The Origins of the British, Stephen Oppenheimer

This is a lengthy and interesting book about the ethnic origins of the British and the Irish.  It debunks at length some common misconceptions about where we came from by deploying a mixture of genetic, linguistic, literary and archaeological evidence.

Oppenheimer's challenges to these prevalent misconceptions may be grouped under a few broad headings.

The "Celts" of the British Isles originally came from Spain and France, not from central Europe

Since the 18th century, the term "Celtic" has acquired all sorts of misleading associations, conjuring up a combination of whisky, rain, W.B.Yeats and the Old Firm game.  One part of the myth is that Britain and Ireland were colonised a few hundred years BC by the "Celts", a warrior race from modern-day Austria and southern Germany, who were in turn displaced from England by the Anglo-Saxons a few centuries later.

This version of events is untenable.  The link with central Europe is an erroneous idea originating from 19th century archaeology.  The European tribesmen referred to by the Romans as Celtae and by the Greeks as Keltoi were consistently associated by ancient writers with southern France rather than with central Europe.  From a linguistic perspective too, the Celtic languages were most prevalent (outside of the British Isles) in modern-day France and Spain.  Moreover, the physical resemblance between British "Celts" like me and the French and Spanish, which is sometimes still remarked upon today, was already apparent to the Roman writer Tacitus in the first century AD:

The dark complexion of the [Welsh] Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts.

Modern genetic research has confirmed that Tacitus was a lot closer to the truth than many modern "Celtic" theorists.

They arrived much, much earlier than most people realise

The "Celts" of the British Isles arrived here not merely hundreds but thousands of years BC.  Many of our genetic lines originate in migrations from Spain and southern France during the repopulation of these islands following the end of the last Ice Age.  The main part of our genetic heritage goes back to this early, pre-neolithic period, and the immigration from south-western Europe continued in the centuries that followed, leaving archaeological evidence in its wake.

The Celtic languages travelled to the British Isles along this route at some point.  These languages are very old, and appear to have diverged from the common "Indo-European" family tree earlier than other tongues like Latin and the Germanic languages.  They also have notable similarities to Basque - a very ancient language which is still spoken in the putative British homeland in Spain and southern France - though they are not genetically related to it.

England - unlike Wales, Scotland and Ireland - was not "Celtic" even in ancient times

The ethnic and cultural divide between England - particularly southern and eastern England - and the "Celtic" countries of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is deep and longstanding.  Even in prehistory, people were migrating to England from the lands across the North Sea, albeit in smaller numbers than the "Celts" who were arriving from France and Spain.  Fast forward a few centuries, and the evidence from classical writers and archaeology suggests that the Roman-era inhabitants of south-eastern England had links with Germanic tribes across the English Channel, notably the Belgae, rather than with the Gaulish Celtic types familiar from the Asterix books.  This somewhat counter-intuitive ancestral link between England and Belgium is further confirmed by genetic evidence.

In terms of language, there is a marked absence of Celtic inscriptions from most of England - unlike Scotland, Ireland and Wales - from any period.  Instead, the ancient inhabitants of England seem to have spoken an early form of English - that is to say, a Germanic language only distantly related to the Celtic languages.  English seems to have been here a long, long time - certainly, it shows almost no signs of having been overlaid on top of an earlier "British Celtic" language akin to Welsh or Cornish.  There is also a surprising shortage of evidence for Celtic placenames in southern England.

The English are therefore not "Anglo-Saxon"

It is generally thought that the English are of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, mixed in with a bit of Viking and Jute.  In its most extreme form, this theory posits that the Anglo-Saxons wiped out the native Celtic Britons and filled up England with their own language, culture and DNA.  According to this genocidal fantasy, the bloodbaths of Katyn and Rwanda were re-enacted in the fields of mediaeval Essex.

There are several problems with this.  Firstly, there is evidence for the presence of Saxons in England in Roman times, both from archaeology and from the name "Saxon shore" (litus Saxonicum) given to the south-eastern coast.  The Saxons seem to have been in place from an early date, even if the Angles came later, the latest in a long line of migrants from the south-east.

The "Anglo-Saxon" invaders of the Dark Ages were not, in the main, responsible for the Germanic imprint on the DNA of the English.  In fact, the dent that they made amounted only to 5.5%.  As indicated above, this is consistent with the evidence of language.  It is generally claimed that English only arrived here in Anglo-Saxon times - indeed, Old English is frequently referred to as "Anglo-Saxon".  But English is not very closely similar to the Germanic languages of continental Europe, and this suggests that it branched off from them at quite an early stage.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of the peoples of Britain and Ireland.  It isn't a short, easy read - in particular, some of the technical discussion of genetics is likely to prove difficult for the lay person.  However, Oppenheimer doesn't assume prior specialist knowledge on the part of his readers, and he shows himself able to write in an easy, popular style.  His skill in weaving together the literary, linguistic, archaological and genetic evidence for his various contentions is impressive.

As a final comment, there is an obvious political dimension to this sort of research.  The idea that these islands are characterised by a deep-rooted and stable racial homogeneity is one that has obvious resonances with the anti-immigrant right, including our friends the BNP (a group of people not hitherto known for their interest in ancient Celtic linguistics or the finer points of mitochondrial DNA).  Oppenheimer himself talks in the book about how some of his earlier research was misrepresented by the media, and he appears not to have been surprised when his work was subsequently brought up by Nick Griffin MEP in his appearance on Question Time.  It must be said, however, that his discussion of the issues is scrupulously apolitical, alive as he is to the nationalist sensitivities at stake in an area like this.  On the whole, I would rather that this sort of book was published than that it wasn't.

Additional note - 30 August 2011

Bryan Sykes's Blood of the Isles makes a number of similar points to Oppenheimer's book.  Sykes also indicates that the genetic differences between the English and the Celts of the British Isles had already been identified by John Beddoe in the 19th century.