John Hinton is surprised and amazed by how little we really know about our genetic heritage in this new exploration of what being 'British' really means
The Origins of the British A Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer, Constable & Robinson £20
The British are notoriously touchy about their origins and this sensitivity can go far — certainly as far as Scotland where old enmities are never a long way away. Cue a story from academic geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. In Edinburgh for a conference, he was persuaded by an alluring "publicity lass" to give a number of interviews to the news media on the ancient divisions between English and Celtic speakers. "Unwisely," as he recalls, he agreed — only to be rather sensationally spread over the newspapers the next day.
"Scots and English aulder enemies than thought," said the Scotsman. "EnglishScots split goes back 10,000 years," cried the Herald. In the lightning way that news now proliferates, the story of Anglo-Scot "enmity" was sonn running amok across the web, inaccuracies duly repeated like rifle fire.
Racist commentators taking up the story felt bound to say that the English "have always been mongrels" — scientifically true but rather unfortunately put.
Oppenheimer was stunned. An established author and a leading expert on the use of DNA to track Migrations, he knew how useful an injection of publicity could be to generating interest — and book sales — but was nonetheless appalled by this widespread demonstration of ignorance and prejudice. So he was easily persuaded by his publishers to counter with a new publishing salvo of his own to set the record straight.
The result is The Origins of the British, which, according to its blurb, will ensure that "British prehistory will never look the same again". A reminder, if we need it, that historians in the competitive climate of today don't make a virtue out of modesty.
Be prepared for this book to challenge some fairly concrete ideas we have about where we hail from. It is intended to blow some dust off given knowledge. Many things that we thought we knew about our British and Irish ancestry are wrong, Oppenheimer contends. In a study that combines original genetic research with the latest scientific, archeological, linguistic and historic records, he does nothing less than rewrite the history of the British.
History tells that the Romans found a uniformly Celtic population throughout the British Isles and that the indigenous folk of the English heartland fell victim to genocide and replacement by "Anglo-Saxon hordes" during the fifth and sixth centuries. In fact, the author claims, these later invasions contributed only a fraction about five per cent — to the English gene pool.
Two-thirds of the English people show an unbroken line of genetic descent from south-western Europeans arriving long before the ' introduction of farming. And by synthesizing the gene evidence with linguistics and other evidence, Oppenheimer shows how long-term European trade and immigration — especially from Scandinavia between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago, contributed most of the remaining third, possibly leading to the introduction of the very earliest form of English language.
And what of the folk we know as Celts — the Irish, Scots and Welsh? Scholars have traditionally placed their origins in Iron Age Central Europe but the author's new data clearly shows that these "Atlantic fringe" people derive from the Ice Age refuges in the Basque country and Spain, following an Atlantic coastal route many thousands of years ago. The Celtic languages we know today being imported through later migrations following the same route. The great and still inexhaustibly talked about divide between the English and the rest of the British does exist, Oppenheimer says firmly. However, contrary to popular belief, the roots of the separation go back not just 1,500 years but many thousands.
What started amazing Oppenheimer was the extraordinary interest in questions about the identity of the Celts and the English. As he points out, there are "millions of people both in the British Isles and the English-speaking diaspora in North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who visit genealogy websites, eager for information on their own origins, their own British roots".
Ethnic identity — highland versus lowland — is real, he concludes. One of the most intractable ethnic feuds in modem British community life, that of Catholics versus Protestants, still plays out in football rivalry, a kind of tribal warfare. Witness the football clubs Everton and Liverpool, Catholic and Protestant rivals in Liverpool, a former Viking colony and one of England's largest Irish communities. Not to forget Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow.
Oppenheimer does not focus on minority ethnic groups, presently at six per cent of the population. He has taken racial diversity a step forward himself by marrying a Malaysian girl and having children who are part English and part Malaysian Chinese. Both kids "are enriched by having two cultural resources to relate to". We should not, he firmly believes, look askance at minorities "after all, we are all minorities compared with the first unnamed pioneers who ventured into the empty, chilly lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets".
Oppenheimer's unexpected conclusion to a book replete with new information and surprises is that the abiding story behind the British is marked by extraordinary continuity and an inheritance that has survived all onslaughts from within and without.
But still, saying that in, for instance, Edinburgh might well provide a lively debate. Genetic discovery is one thing; the kind of goodnatured prejudice that some Scots obviously cherish is quite another.