Showing posts with label genetic archeology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genetic archeology. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mark Collins' "Stateless": My "Epona" Book Review

Here's my new book review, of Mark Collins' 2007 novel: "Mark Collins' 'Stateless': 'Eveline' Revised?". Fleeing Stalinist oppression after the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, a few hundred refugees find themselves not in Austria but, on the impulsive offer and equally rapid acceptance of asylum elsewhere, in Ireland.

Thinking they will soon be able to emigrate to Britain, Canada, or the U.S., they begin to resent their stay at a converted soldiers' camp outside Limerick. The Irish government expected grateful Catholic workers happy to have fled Communist tyranny; their Irish neighbors wonder where jobs will come from as they themselves face emigration; the meddling Church and State functionaries along with the U.N. and union representatives appear only to worsen the Cold War standoff.

Read my review and find out more. Collins' novel, like all of the fiction from Irish-based Pillar Press, recalls the original "Ulysses" with a handsome Aegean blue with white type on its cover. (See "the author's website" for more details.) My review article's in the Hungarian-based "Epona: A Journal of Celtic Studies," based now at the University of Pannonia under Dr. Emilia Szaffner. The issue was delayed, but it's the 2008-2 issue, the fourth published and the second one last year= Epona 4 (2008-2): 1-3. Link to the, sorry, Union Jack in the top corner of the home page if you get the Magyar version of the electronic journal!

P.S. I also published a review earlier in the same journal: "Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt," which examines John Waddell's "Foundation Myths" on the evolution of Irish archaeology alongside Stephen Oppenheimer's DNA-language study, "Origins of the British." See its published pdf.file: Epona 2(2007): 1-6. "Rooted in the Body".

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Barry Cunliffe's "Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000": Book Review

This massive study shares Cunliffe's life's work of researching prehistoric and early historic geographical and archeological patterns of migration in Europe. It's a hefty book in size and scope, bringing us what can be summed up about the previous ten millennia to the better-recorded one we have just concluded. The maps and illustrations add to the understandings packed within an accessible, yet scholarly, text.

A wealth of details tend to favor what we can glean from the warriors and invaders. The quieter folks leave, buried in the soil or carved on the stones, less testimony. The sense of restlessness permeates this volume. Over the "longue durée" of the French Annales historical school, which Cunliffe follows to excavate the deep rarely moving water, the more vibrant surface, and the frothier waves of battle and assault, he seeks to understand the patterns that move Westerners always westward.

A patient reader will find intriguing examples. Primitive people could have gotten the same nutrition from a single red deer as fifty thousand oysters, yet their middens are filled with the tasty shellfish. Europe's coasts in mileage around them roughly equal the earth's circumference. The shift from inhumation-- burying bodies in the ground-- to cremation after 1300 BC may signal a break with earth-mother beliefs for those oriented towards sky-gods.

The ties between material culture then and what we speak today may be tenuous, but Cunliffe explains a key marker. Indo-European languages appear to have spread with Neolithic production of food, from south-west Asia, and then across the Balkans to Hungary and then through Middle Europe's forests in one branch; the other branch stretched from the Mediterranean to Iberia. This language was part of the "Neolithic package" that attracted Mesolithic peoples to adapt cultivation rather than hunting as their way of sustenance.

He also offers an explanation for the disintegration of the old Atlantic trading network that helped spread language and farming. The end of the Bronze Age, with the advent of iron, may have disrupted the entire subcontinent. Regionalism replaced trans-maritime networks. Agricultural surpluses in the east replaced bronze as commodities. Phoenicians dominated the seas. Along with the Greeks and Romans, seafarers left tantalizing suggestions of Atlantean travels into Africa, up into Britain, and perhaps beyond. First the exclusion from this network of Atlantic Iberia in the 8th c. BCE and then northern Europe with the isolation of Ireland in the 6th c. BCE may have accelerated the break we see later within Celtic languages, with Iberian splitting off more, proto-Irish evolving apart from British and Gallic Celtic. (258) Like many points, Cunliffe raises insights in passing on such a long intellectual journey, but he does point out byways worth pursuing.

Later, the Mediterranean inherited imperatives of honor and acquisition by trade and conquest. Cunliffe goes beyond the usual accounting for classical civilization by the need for feeding "gaggles of philosophers and droves of vase painters." (319) "But deep within the human psyche is the desire to gain honour and recognition through leadership: in the situations of stress and conflict that prevailed, military and territorial adventures provided a ready vehicle. In other words, desire to control resources met a deep-seated psychological need by offering leadership opportunities to young men intent on seeking honour." (319)

Young men wanted to fight, to advance their careers when they returned, and to gain high office. The more fights the empires raised, the more they invaded and conquered, until the Romans found themselves at the barbarian frontiers, recruiting the barbarians to police the imperial borders against the barbarians infiltrating the Empire. Many lessons can be learned, and Cunliffe retells the familiar story of Roman weakness well.

Cunliffe does present heaps of evidence, hundreds of tribes, and thousands of facts. Yet, he arranges the clashes and contacts logically, and the visual support aids comprehension of Sarmatians vs. Scordisci, or Pomerania vs. Pannonia. The complicated movements across ancient empires do get confusing even with charts, and the amount of learning crammed into these attractively designed pages is better digested slowly. Endnotes point the reader towards specialized studies, and the text proper remains remarkably free of jargon. One small flaw: the index, substantial though it is, lacks alphabetical listings for the more minor peoples and references in the text.

Concluding, Cunliffe eloquently summarizes his vision. Reviewing the endless push of populations across the continental spine (he starts the book by turning the map to view the sub-continent's peninsular ridge top first), he wonders. "What drove these outpourings is a fascinating problem." Beyond demographic pressures prompting mobility, "is it too much to suggest that underlying it all was a folk memory, passed across the generations, that 'our people always ride into the west'? I once met an elderly traveller on a road in Sussex, who told me he was making for Kent and hoped to be there in May. When asked why, he said, 'We always go there at this time.'" (476)

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Colin Renfrew's "Archeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins" Book Review

This book argues for an Anatolian "Urheimat" (original homeland) for a core group speaking what would spread out laterally across Europe and Central Asia into the Indo-European languages. He rejects much of the competing theory of Marija Gimbutas for a "Kurgan" culture from the steppes; he also dismisses identification of Indo-Europeans with massive invasions of horse-drawn charioteers who swept across the plains east and west spreading their warlike language. Instead, combining patterns of a branched family tree with a "wave" model of concentric circles of expansion by language families, Renfrew constructs an direction that shows how IE could, starting about 6000 BCE, have spread according to the laws of linguistic evolution at steady rates morphologically and phonetically, have become the familiar tongues we speak today.

I found this study rather stodgy. The Anatolian discussion takes up far less of the book than you might expect from the reviews on Amazon before mine. Renfrew's wide ranging, and the whole IE search for origins occupies only a part of a larger effort to take his fellow archeologists to task for ignoring or misinterpreting linguistic evolution within the artifacts they excavate.

The pace of the book's slow, if the facts stay abundant; the style of the methodological marshalling of so much archeological, linguistic, and comparative cultural data turned often leaden. Any work written for a non-specialist that addresses recondite debates and learned contentions may run the risk of such arcane discourse. But, Renfrew, while no natural tale-teller, remains convinced of his iconoclastic assertions, and if you are committed to understanding this subject, this and J.P. Mallory's near-concurrent "In Search of the Indo-Europeans" represent crucial texts on the origins of IE. While I'd been meaning to read Renfrew for a long time, what impelled me to finish it was the appearance in 2007 of David W. Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language," which proposes a Pontic steppe origin in Russia and southern Ukraine for the riders who took Proto-Indo-European across the plateaus as an "elite" language of poetry about a male sky-god and began to leave its traces with other peoples who then began cultivating PIE.

As Renfrew wrote nearly two decades before Anthony, I was curious to see if I could find anticipations of Anthony's theory in Renfrew. I prepared to understand Anthony's OIE elaborations by first learning from how Renfrew built his foundation. He discourages the findings of linguistic paleology. He warns in matching cognates of Sanskrit "ratha" with Latin "rota" that it's "a far cry from saying that some hypothetical Proto-Indo-Europeans used chariots with wheels (or indeed carts with wheels) in their original homeland." (86) Also, he discourages Gimbutas' far-reaching establishment of a PIE Russian-Ukraine "Urheimat" to better assert his competing claim-- based on analysis of early Greek-- for Anatolia.

The liveliest part of the work remains for me the incorporation of Christopher Hawkes' "Cumulative Celticity" theory that Renfrew adapts to his wave-family tree (stammbaum) plotting for PIE. He denies that the La Téne artistic style presents a hub in Central Europe for the migration of Celts, shows how that noun can be defined eight ways, and favors Myles Dillon's reasoning that fundamental language changes began "in situ" in the places we find Celtic languages developing historically, rahter than emanating from a Continental center through massive migration or war. Therefore, the Iberian (Hispano-Celtic) or Goidelic (Q-Celt) branches of ancient Celtic languages stayed far enough on the Atlantic fringes that they did not alter with subsequent innovations that warped other Celtic varietals into insular Brythonic (P-Celt) or Western European Gaulish forms attested to in the historical record.

Finally, well before the genetic applications suggested by DNA comparisons with language from Stephen Oppenheimer ("Origins of the British," 2006), Renfrew predicts in passing that in Britain prior to the withdrawal of the Romans already many people may have spoken a Germanic language (137). However, Renfrew discourages in this pre-Genome Project breakthrough in genogeography a trust in such efforts as pioneered Luigi Cavalli-Sforza: "I think experience has shown that genetic arguments in relation to language and culture quite readily lend themselves to misleading interpretations." Still, the "wave of advance maps" such earlier scholars charted with their mapping of "various blood groups in Europe, suggesting genetic affinities," Renfrew finds may "await further assessment," which two decades later appears to be occuring with scholars such as Cavalli-Sforza, Oppenheimer, and Bryan Sykes, to name only three of those addressing their findings for a wider audience.

(Posted to Amazon US today. I reviewed Oppenheimer at length in the on-line Celtic Studies journal Epona-- "Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt" -- as well as a shorter review on Amazon, where I also reviewed Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve" & "Saxons, Vikings & Celts." Try also for a broader worldview "Genes, Peoples & Languages" by Cavalli-Sforza.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Russian to investigate the origins of Welsh language
Western Mail, 13 Feb 2008.

A RUSSIAN scholar will lead a fresh investigation into the origins of the Welsh language by looking as far afield as Romania and Turkey, it was announced yesterday.

Dr Alexander Falileyev, originally from St Petersburg but currently working in Aberystwyth University’s Department of Welsh, has already written a report based on the presence of Celtic names in the Roman province of Dacia (modern day Romania).

And now, with the help of a £390,889 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, he will conduct the first full investigation into evidence linking the origins of the Welsh language to South Romania and as far east as Galatia, Turkey.

The ancient Celtic language, from which Welsh is derived, has already been traced back to inscriptions in areas like Italy, France, Spain and Switzerland.

More recently, the university’s Department of Welsh, a group led by Professor Patrick Sims-Williams, has used ancient place-names in sources like Ptolemy’s Geography to prove that Celtic was spoken over a much wider area.

Professor Sims-Williams welcomed the new grant. “We know that these areas were colonised from the third century BC onwards by peoples who spoke Celtic languages. “It’s becoming clear that Celtic was one of the major languages of ancient Europe, alongside Greek and Latin. It would appear that most EU countries have a Celtic past."


Hwyl fawr to today's post "Did They Speak Welsh in Romania" over at Alan Jones' blog "Independence Cymru" for alerting me to this Western Mail article.
http://alanindyfed.blogspot.com/2008/02/did-they-speak-welsh-in-romania.html

This map "1066 and All That" here's directly relevant from the N.Y. Times, 5 Mar. 2007.
http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/03/05/science/06brits_graphic.html

See my own detailed review, "Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt," which examines John Waddell's "Foundation Myths" on the evolution of Irish archaeology alongside Stephen Oppenheimer's DNA-language study, "Origins of the British." See its published pdf.file:Epona 2(2007): 1-6
http://www.epona-journal.hu/epona_languages/English/files/issue_0712/Murphy_final.pdf

Saturday, December 22, 2007



Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt:


My review, in Epona 2 (2007) 1-6: Stephen Oppenheimer's "Origins of the British" & John Waddell's "Foundation Myths."




Images: figurine of a perky Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.


Reminded me of the 7-6 c BCE Hallstatt figure from the "Cult Wagon." Cowgirl up!


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)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Deep Ancestry: Spencer Wells' Genographic Project

BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5061296382227459730
Here's my review, posted today, to Amazon US about another DNA gene pool plunge, this time by the leader of the National Geographic Society's Genographic Project. My wife and I have to send off our cheek swabs soon for the greater good of humankind. I predict she's K or N1 mDna, and I am R1b Y-chromosome.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/genographic

[Image credit. Not much on "deep ancestry" Google image comes up except the boring cover of the book, and eventually a fantastically contentious Wikipedia page full of block, violations, flames, and passion. Reminded me of a Lewis Carroll Wonderland fracas. Or, considering my post last night, how soon an image search for "Jewish Forward" led to antisemitic cartoons by page four. Anyhow, this is from a study by Weston Smith, "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration," reprinted on Gutenberg Books Australia, from a 1930s anthropologist. This is from some dentally bold sharers of my probable R1 haplotype, across the Sruth na Maoile on the Isle of Harris; the best smiles from those on a "primitive" rather than the Sugah i' th' Tae diet. Yesterday also in the Forward issue I read of a reader's zayde who read the Forverts slowly, sipping the "glass tea" while taking, slowly, a sugar cube from a Swee-Touch-Nee tin. He held the cube between his teeth, horse-like, and then drank the tea. The cube dissolving, another took its place. The pages turned. If you are reading this in similar posture but as upwardly mobile grandson of landsman or urban pioneering heiress from bogtrotter, don't spill your g-d damned five-dollar latte on your two-thousand-dollar keyboard.]


Compared to Wells' earlier "Journey of Man" and Bryan Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve" and "Saxons, Vikings & Celts," (all three also reviewed by me on Amazon), this is considerably briefer, compressing the genetic information of both mDNA (female-transmitted) and Y-chromosome (male markers) lineages into 250 pp. including a long appendix listing all of the major profiles. Contrasted to the colorfully organized information on the National Geographic Society's "Genographic Project" online site, these appendices largely duplicate the same material in somber typeface. But, having it in book form combined with the previous 175 pp. of text, this makes a concise primer for public and home libraries that, even in our web-dependent age (as you and I know as we read this post!), still need print backup and expansion of material that on the web, as on the NGS site, must be too diffused and remains a bit unwieldy for easy cross-referencing and browsing.

The maps here tend to comment silently upon the material Wells discusses. Unfortunately, Wells more often than not fails to tie his sober, but not altogether dry, text tightly enough to the graphics. You look at the charts and can figure them out, sure, but if the author had taken greater effort in being more explicit, e.g. "see figure 6, where the so-and-so can be seen ranging across the this-and-that at such-and-such a rate," the integration of print and visuals would have enhanced the combined presentation of what can be challenging material for the layperson.

Wells, identified in the author's endnote as a "child prodigy," is ideally placed to write such an introduction to our "encapsulated history," but this efficiently summarized book does feel (as another reviewer commented) as a work in progress. Part of this sensation that much more is going on beneath what can be easily paraphrased for not-specialists may be that the popularization of whats going on in labs now may lag a couple of years behind what only a few experts (Sykes, Oppenheimer, and Wells himself along with possibly Luigi Cavalli-Sforza on a very short list) have the ability to translate findings derived from massive amounts of extraordinarily complex raw material into understandable prose aimed at the general reader.

Bits buried in the appendices demand whole books of their own. I look forward to future volumes about these issues....Half of Ashkenazi Jews can trace their line to four women, and three of those from one "K" group and another "N1." 10-20 people crossed the Bering Strait's landbridge to engender as "Q3" most Native Americans. Click languages may have been the earliest forms of speech. Berbers in North Africa and the Saami ("Lapps") near the Arctic Circle share roots. A non-Asian "X" haplotype is one of the five present among Native American populations; "X2" came not through Siberia but from Western Eurasia. (I wanted to know how this fit into the Kennewick Man controversy, but Wells seems to edge away from debate.) Hitting the Pamir Knot of three mountain ranges connected in Central Asia split up a formerly cohesive Eurasian clan into three main groups as they could no longer move east across that continent's Eastern France-to Korea "superhighway."

Seeing that Sykes has fired off two recent books aimed at the same audience, and that Stephen Oppenheimer also of Oxford (where Sykes taught too) has "The Real Eve" and the new "Origins of the British" in the past few years, now Wells has two. They-- each author having a book around 2002-4 and a second book within the past year) overlap in data and approach, but Oppenheimer appears the most academically dry, Sykes the most eagerly imaginative, and Wells takes the middle ground. No imagined scenarios (unlike Sykes, who by the way has a competing project to gather DNA data) for our NGS leader, but Wells does try with various individuals to make his chosen representatives from today's genetic lines come alive a bit with their own encounters with the data that the NGS finds.

But even this attempt at connecting the world of the test tube with that of those people we pass every day is not carried through enough. The relatively brief amount of discussion given, say, the African American "Odine" who shares Thomas Jefferson's own very rare if not unique genetic marker proves a letdown. Wells builds up the case with flair, but we fail to find enough by that chapter's end to understand exactly where the 3rd President got his genetic marker from and how its rarity in England points to a rather exotic lineage not only for Odine today but any descendant of the Jefferson clan.

In summary, the appendices and a well-chosen short list of suggested books and websites both anthropological and genealogical make this a useful source for beginners wanting a deeper look at their deep ancestry than the NGS site can provide, but not so technical as to bewilder the reader. In passing, Wells is surprisingly reticent about recruiting for the NGS project in his text, but there is an advertisement on the book's final page with information for those who wish to contribute. The NGS by the way uses the funds raised from volunteers here towards a Genographic Legacy Fund that gathers data for free from indigenous and traditional communities, so it's a worthwhile cause.

I would have liked to know more about how, if Wells studied with Luigi Cavalli-Sforza for his doctoral work at Stanford, or if Wells presumably worked alongside geneticists Oppenheimer and Sykes at Oxford, how his own project and conceptualization of how the DNA research could be used differed from his eminent mentors. (As an aside, Sykes in his recent "Saxons" book never mentions Oppenheimer who I assume is just down the hall from him at Oxford!) Cavalli-Sforza with his HGDP and Sykes with his company Oxford Ancestors appear to have slightly divergent goals from the NGS study, and I remain a bit unclear about where the three DNA-gathering enterprises cooperate or whether they are all amassing their data separately. Wells hints a bit about HGDP, but does not mention Sykes' company. I suspect that the whole scientific and enterprenuerial venture's combined story here may have to wait another half-century, when an elderly Wells (he's well under 40 now!) composes his memoirs.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Threading "British" & "Celtic" DNA Labyrinths

Following up my blog post earlier this month on the NY Times' Nicholas Wade's March 6 article about the debates over the common "Celtic" indigenous origins attributed to most of the "British" Isles' present-day inhabitants, here's today's Amazon review of Bryan Sykes' "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain & Ireland." (WW Norton, 2006). Alas, but no local library yet carries his colleague Stephen Oppenheimer's new book, "The Roots of the British: A Genetic Detective Story."

Earlier reviewers sum up Professor Sykes arguments well. I read "Seven Daughters of Eve," and what struck me about this "sequel" is that Sykes does not engage in the imaginary narratives with which he enlivened the composite "life and times" of his seven genetic prototypical mDNA matriarchs. Those tales gave a poignant and charming (albeit popularized and therefore probably bound to annoy his colleagues) glimpse into the conjectured "inspired by a true story" that we cannot fully translate from Paleolithic Europe. "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" avoids this fictional device.

Reading between the lines, as many readers and critics misunderstood his "seven daughters" as "real" individuals, Sykes may have opted for less creative methods to explain the patriarchal counterparts-- which are far more numerous if less attractively developed here in their genetically distinguishable progeny, it seems from their Y-chromosome variants. Instead you get potted histories and summarized geographies of the early formation of the land and the tribes that entered the various insular regions post-Ice Age. While valuable to a general readership who never heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth or learned where the Grampians sprawl, such data does fill these pages with a lot of material that veers tangentially from his genetic research. It's difficult in a book aimed at non-scholars to combine so much information from so many fields; it reminds me too of Jared Diamond's similarly ambitious, polymathic, and synthesizing efforts that roam widely in rounding up support for the grand scientific thesis that spans millennia. Like Diamond, Sykes arouses scholarly and popular controversy. He too likes a good anecdote, and labors to entertain as well as educate, and shows he can speak to audiences outside the learned seminar. We need academically trained authors who can fill this necessary role and so counter so much merciless jargon and dismal prose from their more timid, tenure-tracked, and dryasdust peers.

What puzzles me is the lack of any bibliography, any footnotes. Even popularized accounts usually provide references or suggestions for further reading. The work by Paul Besu into Scots emigrants' search for roots sounds intriguing from the quotes on pp. 53-4. But what's Besu's book, or article, titled? From where in his work are the quotes taken? There's nothing to go on here.

Sykes apologizes at one point for having to even mention "haplotypes." I was relieved he finally did; he builds on Prof. David Bradley and his Trinity College Dublin team's analyses of Irish DNA that were initially published about half-a-dozen years ago. When Bradley had announced this data initially, I had searched in vain for any layman's explanation of the study beyond a paragraph or two in the press. This book met my expectations for a summary of Bradley's team's work I could understand. Certainly, as on pp. 112-113, Sykes shines when he talks of the humanity behind the numbers to the thirteenth decimal point, and how the Isle of Skye's weather at his second home suits his scholarly pursuit. These moments of candor and passion sparkle amidst the recitals of the highest peaks in Scotland, evidence from Roman amphorae, and where to get the best ice-cream in Lampeter! It's as idiosyncratic as the studies of his lovingly- described forebear in research, John Beddoe, a century ago.

In "A United Kingdom, Maybe?" by Nicholas Wade, in the March 3, 2007, Science section of the New York Times, Stephen Oppenheimer's theory that most in the Isles descend from ancestors 16,000 years ago is also explained along with Sykes' somewhat variant interpretations. But Oppenheimer, also a geneticist at Oxford and so presumably just down the corridor from Sykes, is never mentioned in SV&G. Why? Professional rivalry? Reluctance to mention his colleague's work that would be explained in Oppenheimer's 2006 "The Origins of the British," that came out alongside Sykes' book? Silence seems strange, given both profs work on "British" DNA. Maybe it's academic etiquette or cautious reticence.

Oppenheimer agrees overall with Sykes that the Isles were settled by the group still genetically predominant today. Oppenheimer appears to claim a date significantly earlier than Sykes suggests here with "Cheddar Man," (whose tooth drilling by Sykes begins his book vividly) but the two are both arguing for a primarily "Celtic" (despite the problems with that psuedo-"racial" 19c term for a linguistic and not an ethnic identity common among certain earlier Europeans, as Sykes explains well) "bedrock" of shared ancestry for most of the Isles' present-day people. Sykes wanders these Isles before asserting this in his conclusion. Lots of his byways are fascinating, others depending on the reader's own predilections may be tedious, as on any journey with an eager if rambling guide.

Certain places of interest on the journey lack necessary details. While he cites Ireland's island-wide population at 5.7 million, how does the current situation in the Republic whose 10% of its residents are now foreign-born effect his estimations, which seem to assume all of the Irish population are of families at least a few centuries longer established? Similarly, I wondered how soon the genetic impacts of Italians, Poles, Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Chinese begin to alter the DNA composition in ways that can be measured in the peoples native to, but intermarrying with now, those arriving in recent decades as global immigrants into Great Britain. Did Sykes in his gathering of samples only test people who knew they had "native" origins? This selection is implied but not explained.

Also, he cites for a surname, e.g. "Dyson," (pg. 272) that 90% of those with the paternal surname share the same Y-chromosome from common ancestry. Does this confirm the rumor of supposed (10% of, some say, although this figure by others as been said to be inflated) offspring who are not paternally sired by their putative "fathers"-- or what of those adopted into a family, or in the old days fostered? Is there a "rate" measurable of non- "paterfamilial" births by women that shows a pattern over the centuries of a steady percentage of extra-marital pregnancies? Does this 10% explain the less than 100% chromosomal match to a surname assuming a paternal descendant's lineage? I am guessing these effects, but Sykes never tells us why there's this 10% discrepancy or its DNA cause.

More gaps remained after I read "S V & C." The "DNA of Wales" chapter seemed rushed. If Ealdgyth on pg. 227 was Queen of Wales before the death of Gruffudd, why did she have a Saxon name? More crucially, speaking of Welsh genetic roots, why the lower- than- expected rate of Y-chromosome "Oisin" mutations in mid-Wales? He mentions and maps in the back but does not give any in-depth detail about the "families" of the less common markers metaphorically named Eshu and Re. Where are these groups from? No help here. I don't understand how Wodan differs from Sigurd exactly.

Finally, he argues that women rarely move about as much as the men who invade and kill off their male enemies but spare their womenfolk as potential mothers. Where did all the males keeping alive the Y-chromosomes of the pre-Germanic Atlantic-Fringe, Celtic-speaking peoples retreat to and procreate undercover in the Isles? Is Sykes arguing that the maternal "native" stock is mostly "Celtic" and so this numerical preponderance outweighs the part-"Celtic," part-"Germanic, etc." male mix traceable in their Y-chromosomes? Or, is even the male side mostly majority "Celtic" even without the female indigenous element? I still am unsure.

If Gildas' claims of the "Ruin of Britain" were exaggerations, then how did these pre-Germanic cultures adapt to their new overlords, linguistically, while preserving their stubbornly "native" bloodlines genetically? More needed filling in here. Especially since on pg. 285 he notes the opposite claim, that Y-chromosome diversity in regards to dating its settlement dates has been challenged by claims to "patrilocality," men staying put while women wander off to marry. Sykes challenges this indirectly with the "Genghis effect," but I remain puzzled about this counter-claim of "men stay, women go" that opposes his book's conclusions.

But this uneven presentation manages still to end powerfully. He compares the mDNA to a smooth umbilical cord back into maternal mists, while the male Y "thrusts its way from generation to generation." (I add, in both senses of the word!) This maniacal patriarchal drive wreaks havoc, enslaves and kills in the name of conquest and destruction and empire. "We could not have any more different conduits into the depths of our ancestry." (pg. 279) I agree with reviewers who note that in our DNA quest we are only grasping two strands of a multi-colored thread, the only two whose twists we can follow, and that this obvious fact, strangely unacknowledged by Sykes, does threaten to become too reductive a trail to chart accurately our ancestral passage through the labyrinth of time.

As Sykes notes, the blur of Teutonic ancestries with the Vikings, Normans, Danelaw, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Roman legionnaires makes easy "tribal" genealogies difficult to unravel from the "Wodan" and "Sigurd" strands. This key point, undermining the manipulative historical claims by the English to an Anglo-Saxon, anti-Roman Teutonic, and therefore anti-Roman Catholic legacy of Germanic freedom fighters, finally explains why so many chronicles, legends, invasions, and conquests were "justified" by those who took over the name of the earlier British if apparently not their maternal inheritance to an ineradicable pre-Germanic, indigenous, eventually Celtic-speaking matriarchal heritage for the majority in today's Isles. Pg. 206: "The later arrivals may get all the headlines, but it takes a lot to displace indigenous genes, especially on the female side." I remind you how James Joyce mused in "Ulysses" that paternity is a "legal fiction." But the woman's own record, DNA shows, can never lie.

As a non-scientist, I am grateful for Sykes' book. Despite its starts and stops, I am happy to have gone along for this intellectual ride. I am sure that geneticists will build upon the raw material here and find more intricate structures in our veins and sinews that will explain much that Sykes and his colleagues now can inevitably only suggest as educated guesses or speculate upon.

(P.S. Image: from Luigi Cavalli's map of Y-chromosome haplotype distribution; area #17, Castlerea in Roscommon, is the exact barony that my Finans, Dockerys, Fordes, and an O'Connell or Connell or Connellan all occupied since, well practically time immemorial. It has the highest percentage on this chart of the Isles, 90%, of R1B haplotypes passed down through the male line-- indicating a considerable degree of genetic isolation from the rest of the gene pool. See more at: http://www.geocities.com/littlednaproject/Cavalli.htm )

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


Really a United Kingdom after all?

Both Bryan Sykes' "Saxons, Vikings, & Celts" and Stephen Oppenheimer's "The Origins of the British" are new books by two Oxford geneticists. Given my fascination with genogeography, this pair has topped my Amazon Wish List for months. Today's New York Times carried in its Science section a long article, complete with big map, charting what Oppenheimer argues is the true genetic origin of the vast majority (vastest of all in Ireland, only 12% of our gene pool) of the original inhabitants of that North Atlantic Archipelago we "Celts" (sic, as the article observes) call what you probably know but I try not to refer to as the UK.

The genetic argument reminds me of Bob Quinn's "The Atlantean Irish" argument (revised in 2005, reviewed by me at Amazon--see the link via the home page of my blog) of North African and Mediterranean connections between ancient Irish settlers and peoples of that temperate region of trade and navigational innovation. Quinn's thesis has been savaged, but alongside the "Atlantic Fringe" model that's undermined (see Simon Jones' book also reviewed by me) the Celtic construct which we forget is only 18-19 c romanticism, Oppenheimer may provide Quinn and Jones with further evidence to look not to the La Tene culture or Scythia or the Danube as to the Spanish coast, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Sardinia as spawning grounds for we who descend from the peoples of the Northern isles.

Oppenheimer argues a much earlier date for Neolithic settlement after the last Ice Age, perhaps even 16,000 years ago rather than the usual 7,000 or so, given the glaciers retreated from the isles only 16,000 years back! They would have spoken a language akin to Basque-- the oldest on the Continent and the only remnant of the pre-Indo-Europeans left today. The Irish and the Basques share some genetic markers that, as David Bradley of TCD found out a few years ago, show they were isolated holdouts of the pre-IE invaders who either pushed them into these fastnesses or wiped out everyone else but them as the IEs brought agriculture-- at a kilometer a year, thousands of miles westward over millennia, 6000-4000 BCE. My blood type of O-positive and my Connacht origins, for example, show a 98% native genetic inheritance compared to much lower percentages in the east and north of Ireland, let alone Britain or Europe. I share statistically only a tiny bit with the Middle Easterners who brought agriculture slowly, year by year, field converted from forest, towards the Atlantic from the Mediterranean, across the continent. Quinn thinks that we need to replace such a tracking with the coastal routes; I am unsure how Bradley aligns with him, although Quinn refers to such a thesis in passing.

Whether its Oppenheimer's emphasis upon the Northern Iberian settlement of the isles or claims for Spanish origins from The Book of Invasions/ Lébor Gabhala, the Irish always have traced their roots back to Iberia, where Milesius and his sons, mythic progenitors, first set sail for Ierne.

The article details where Oppenheimer differs from Bradley and especially his competing author and colleague Sykes. The linguistic assertions are fascinating and I am eager to learn more since the archeological record reveals so little about pre-Romans in reference to their mentality and culture that did not survive as stone and bone and pottery, from the time before the invasion of Britain by Caesar. Celtic as a far more ancient language is suggested--back around the first farmers coming 4000 BCE he thinks rather than the usual 500 BCE I've been taught. Also, English, he proposes from a formally discredited theory using language dating newly matched up with genetic dating-- glottochronology (great new word of the day), came over with the Belgae at the time of Julius Caesar -- they were already living on both sides of the Channel. Oppenheimer wonders if English survived in southeast Britain rather than being brought with the Angles and Saxons-- don't forget those Kentish Jutes, I might add.

In sum, most peoples trace their true "blood" back to those post-glacial peoples who arrived long before the Celtic speakers. Farming spread perhaps more than their hordes. Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton in yet another book I reviewed "In Search of the Ancient Celts," incorporate the conjecture that it's like Coke cans found among a Third World people today. The artifacts of a more advanced civilization can be dispersed, or the language for that matter as with global English today I add, but this dispersal of material goods does not mean a massive depopulation or invasion by the newcomers, only their cultural--and then linguistic-- dominance over the natives, who still outnumber by far the innovative blow-ins.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/06/science/06brits.html

(Image footnote from me: Castlerea looks off one county too far south. Should not it be up one in Roscommon? The map in the April 07 portion of my blog under the Bryan Sykes review seems more correct.)