Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Origins of the British: Stephen Oppenheimer's book reviewed.

Not the place to begin, but this book may reward advanced readers who can handle a popularized but scholarly work on the implications of recent findings in DNA. Earlier readers posting {this is my Amazon US review posted today; search this blog for posts on Sykes' "Blood of the Isles" and DNA British origins} frequently disparage this book's ponderous prose and its massive array of recondite DNA analyses. After reading more accessible, and considerably shorter (no coincidence!) works on genetics and anthropology by Spencer Wells and Bryan Sykes (for both authors, their two most recent books reviewed by me on Amazon), I felt ready to tackle Oppenheimer's work, despite its difficulty. While the time invested paid off in a better knowledge of the Celtic and British origin debate and the possible influence of Germanic cultural and linguistic influences preceding not only the Anglo-Saxon invasion but the preceding Roman occupation, Oppenheimer while he may be a better scholar than Sykes remains a less entertaining writer. Sykes can popularize his findings in "Blood of the Isles" & "Seven Daughters of Eve." He also can profit from them if you note the enterprise Oxford Genetics. As I commented when reviewing Sykes' "Blood," it remains curious that two geneticists both at Oxford do not even mention the other colleague in hundreds of pages of closely documented and meticulously referenced texts.

This apparent rivalry aside, Oppenheimer acknowledges very late in his text that names given to Rostov or Ian or Helena are merely "aides memoires" for R1B-11 or the like in an alphabet soup of markers all geneticists rely upon. Readers of both Sykes & Oppenheimer sniff disdainfully at this popularization, but surely both scientists and lay people need assistance in imagining "Eve" or "Lucy" or the "Ice Man" to make more personal the findings buried in blood types or bone samples. Oppenheimer carefully explains his reasons for clarifying relationships among these difficult classifications, numbering in the thousands by now. Much explanatory material on genetics here is relegated to appendices and a glossary; while Sykes & Wells integrate more definitions and analogies into their briefer, more readable books, Oppenheimer opts for density.

This can bore a reader. My eyes glazed over in the second hundred pages full of dull genetics. The first hundred, tackling the Celtic origins debate and guardedly based on scholars such as Simon James & Barry Cunliffe, and Iron Age archaeologists such as John Collis, argues a southerly direction into the British Isles for Celtic infusion, not the La Tene Danube-Central European homeland and its overland route for entry into the Isles. Personally, I'd have liked to have Bob Quinn's book "The Atlantean Irish" (reviewed by me) credited for its prescience regarding the Atlantic Celt "fringe" movement that Cunliffe and others have since fought to replace the Continental migration theories of the 19c. This vexed matter alone, building upon the past two decades of Celtic revision, or Celto-skepticism, could fill an entire book easily.

But, I did perk up eventually. This is more a reference book on a variety of unevenly covered but admittedly provocative topics. He writes clearly in places and dully in many others, depending it seems on his diligence vs. his enthusiasm! This is an arduous trek, but you need to weather this if your curiosity's aroused about this intellectual terrain that for the first time geneticists and linguists have entered to do battle over, not to mention archeologists and historians!

Advances in DNA may soon rely on its suggestions, or they may overturn its assumptions. But, Oppenheimer bravely piles all he has amassed for the benefit of science. It may be too clunky and over-ambitious, but he has done specialized researchers, armchair genealogists, and academics like myself needing a non-technical explanation of dozens of arcane debates all a service.

Oppenheimer builds on this fact-laden if recondite foundation to posit that many of today's ancestors came to the Isles perhaps as early as around 15-7,500 years ago. The land bridge before the end of the last Ice Age became submerged allowed two major inflows of migration, from a Ukrainian-Moldavian refuge, and an Iberian refuge. The former provided a basis for North Sea movements added to later by Scandinavians, Saxons, Belgae, and other Continental peoples. The latter brought people in on the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish sides closest to the Irish Sea that opened up in the later periods of global warming. Germanic languages cannot have diverged in Old English so rapidly after the Saxon incursions, nor were (against the Welsh historian Gildas' spurious claims of Celtic "wipeout") the indigenous natives necessarily Celtic-speakers all prior to the landing of Hengist and his post-Roman mercenaries.

Percentages of genetic disruption rarely reach even the point of "decimation" of 10% in a handful of Anglian areas, according to genetic studies of inhabitants today in these long-stable regions of Britain. Simply and ineradicably, this persistent divide, genetically and perhaps linguistically, Oppenheimer proposes, persists in our DNA. This parallels the Germanic vs. Celtic division of languages in the Isles, the spine of mountains serving as an insular border between these two major routes for farming and colonization.

The hoary myth of a Celtic genocide by Teutonic overlords that inspired Arthur's last stand, it seems, proves more a "Dark Age" screed than plausible history. Granted that this early medieval era remains fraught with dangers for those reliant only on chronicles or a misleading archeological record, Oppenheimer here makes his boldest suggestion.

Probably the first to enter this fray as a geneticist, he confronts linguistic assumptions about the rapid spread and dialectal evolution in only a few centuries of Anglo-Saxon in post-Roman Britain. Germanic languages, he opines, might have become established long before Romans, let alone Saxons, entered into what was not necessarily a Celtic-dominated Brittania. Celts themselves, whatever this term means given the looseness of this pseudo-ethnic linguistic concept, did not rush en masse into the islands, and they too were perhaps the harbingers of not a massive demographic invasion but an elite influencing cultural and linguistic trends among the natives, who may date back ten thousand years before the arrival of Celtic-language speakers. Unfortunately, traces of any words that are pre-Celtic lurk rarely in the archaeological record, according to most experts. We lack a Rosetta Stone to decode whatever insular peoples spoke before Celtic languages became the norm among both the newcoming elite and the long-settled old-timers.

Therefore, Oppenheimer turns to DNA for clues. He challenges linguists who for a century have been indoctrinated to ignore searching for language origins. He argues that science can offer tentative solutions that account for a Germanic undercurrent that may not be that apparent on the surface, but which aligns with what we know about rates of linguistic change that may have begun as long ago as 3000 BCE (estimates differ) that can be calibrated with patterns of genetic migration.

His thesis? Most of the original British Isles inhabitants descend from a massive "founder population"-- maybe far more than three-fourths or more of those today living in some locales. Due to genetics and settlement patterns, most humans stick to one place for millennia. This conservatism therefore provides a solid bedrock. It cannot be eroded even by the waves of more recent, and tribally-named, intruders. While closer to us in time and in the historical record (however tenuous!), these famous warriors themselves often number in the low single-digits (5% often!) in terms of percentages of genetic "material" we British and/or Celts carry today.

All subsequent immigrations, whether Celt, Roman, Saxon, Angle, Jute, Viking, or Norman, Oppenheimer states in the closing line of his epilogue, diminish by their traces in the descendants of the majority who trace their roots to British-resident or Celtic-origin DNA today. Most of the origins of the British predate even the Celts. Oppenheimer concludes: "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." (421)

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