Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Anglo-Saxons were not Anglo-Saxon

Remember the lively discussion provoked by Eileen's post Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists? An article in the British magazine Prospect argues that the study that argued for this social-sexual apartheid was faulty, and that Britain has retained its aboriginal (pre-"Celtic", Basque-like) population since it was first settled "between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands." These peoples make up three quarters of the gene pool, writes Stephen Oppenheimer in Myths of British Ancestry. That means that the English, Irish, Welsh and Scots are genetically pretty much the same, "a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age, which we share most closely with the former ice-age refuge in the Basque country." Oppenheimer continues:

The idea that the Celts were eradicated—culturally, linguistically and genetically—by invading Angles and Saxons derives from the idea of a previously uniformly Celtic English landscape. But the presence in Roman England of some Celtic personal and place-names doesn't mean that all ancient Britons were Celts or Celtic-speaking.

The genocidal view was generated, like the Celtic myth, by historians and archaeologists over the last 200 years. With the swing in academic fashion against "migrationism" (seeing the spread of cultural influence as dependent on significant migrations) over the past couple of decades, archaeologists are now downplaying this story, although it remains a strong underlying perspective in history books.

Some geneticists still cling to the genocide story. Research by several genetics teams associated with University College London has concentrated in recent years on proving the wipeout view on the basis of similarities of male Y chromosome gene group frequency between Frisia/north Germany and England. One of the London groups attracted press attention in July by claiming that the close similarities were the result of genocide followed by a social-sexual apartheid that enhanced Anglo-Saxon reproductive success over Celtic.

The problem is that the English resemble in this way all the other countries of northwest Europe as well as the Frisians and Germans. Using the same method (principal components analysis, see note below), I have found greater similarities of this kind between the southern English and Belgians than the supposedly Anglo-Saxon homelands at the base of the Danish peninsula. These different regions could not all have been waiting their turn to commit genocide on the former Celtic population of England. The most likely reason for the genetic similarities between these neighbouring countries and England is that they all had similar prehistoric settlement histories.

The essay makes for fascinating reading. Oppenheimer also has a book forthcoming on the subject.

(Thanks, Alex Hague, for the link)

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

I just finished reading Oppenheimer's article and have to say that I'm now more confused than ever. Well, not really. Mainly, this confirms my view that history is always more complicated than most of us realize or want to admit [there is never, for example, just one cause for one effect, etc.]. The difficult work now, for historians of early England, is not so much working to refute or support Oppenheimer's view, or working to refute or support "migrationism," or working to refute or support the so-called "genocide" or "invasions" theory, but rather, in delineating all of the ways in which part of all of these explanatory models have something to do with the history of England and its peoples. It will also mean confronting the uncomfortable idea that racism, for example, might be a distinctively "modern" phenomenon [although, I don't believe it is, but it has to be historicized, nevertheless].