August 24th, 2009
|02:37 pm - DNA and theories of British identity|
I am reading Origins of the British by Stephen Oppenheimer, who specialises in human DNA research.
DNA research has overthrown the paradigm of British prehistory as a series of population replacement events, which informed fiction and popular books on the subject. This false model is of 'races' such as the Beaker People, the Celts and the Saxons coming into the country and replacing/displacing previous populations. The British identified as an Anglo-Saxon people, and identified the inhabitants of (say) Wales as displaced pre-Saxon populations.
DNA research proves this model to be very inaccurate. Instead Britain has a population which originated during the Mesolithic (from the Ice Age population centre in Northern Spain) and then assimilated repeated minor waves of immigration, such as the Saxons, which each contributed about 5% to the population (a similar proportion to 20th century immigration). You may see this as politically positive - we are not survivors of a history of genocide and racial supremacism, we are survivors of constant assimilation and inter-relationship. Also modern immigration patterns are consistent with thousands of years of population flow, rather than being an unprecedented threat.
A second issue which I'd like to post about another time is the pseudo-Darwinian 'genocide' model which was accepted for so long: I think it is no coincidence that it is a warrior model, a conquest model, a masculine imperial model. I also think it is no coincidence that it arose just as people from Britain (and other European countries) were actually displacing and destroying indigenous populations in other parts of the world. But we now see that it is not the model of how Britain itself became populated.
I should also say that if the DNA had proved we were the victors of waves of genocide, the value system which says genocide is bad would still be just as strong. However, it is nice to see that as usual, reality has a liberal bias.
I think it is no coincidence that it is a warrior model, a conquest model, a masculine imperial model.
From the point of view of the supposed "victors" it certainly is. From the point of view of the supposed "victims" it has an unfortunate element of victimhood and self-pity. Being of mixed Scottish and Welsh ancestry I had a brief flirtation with that kind of victim thinking. Our country was stolen by the wicked English, that sort of thing. Which is every bit as negative and destructive as the triumphalist warrior interpretation.
This is a good point; I hadn't thought of it that way. Oppenheimer is very critical of the idea of 'Celtic' as a meaningful term; it may possibly be useful as a linguistic marker, but it does not match a genetic lineage. I've only skimmed that bit of the book yet, but I'm pretty sure that's what he says.
And a lot of people have an emotional investment in the idea of "Celticness" - they're going to be very hostile to anyone who suggests it's mostly a fantasy. You're not dealing with things that people are rational about when you get into areas of patriotism, national identity, racial identity, cultural identity, etc. It's all very politicised as well. I'm afraid mere facts will cut no ice with most people who will continue to believe whatever fits their political ideology.
Science is difficult to separate from politics, and it's getting more difficult all the time.
Actually, having read further now, he isn't totally critical of the term 'Celtic' as worthless. However, the 'no genocide' idea seems to permeate the book.
I'll be fascinated to see if he runs into a hostile response. I'm predicting that he will. Especially if he's unkind enough to back up his theories with annoying stuff like evidence.
There is a bit on Picts but I haven't even looked at it yet. If it's anything like the other bits, you almost certainly are a Pict - well, some of your ancestors spoke Pictish. I can't help but wonder what it felt like as one civilisation changed into another. Cruel? Painless? Exciting?
Maybe it took ages to happen and people didn't notice until suddenly nobody was speaking Pictish anymore?
I heard a radio programme some years ago that suggested it was more like fashion; a few Saxons move in down the street, and suddenly all the Britons want to wear that really cool Saxon gear and talk their slang?
My impression is that most invasions mostly consist of a change of the people at the top - like Ferdinand and Isabella "driving the Moors out of Spain", meaning that the ruling class went into exile and the rest just converted to Catholicism.
Yes, and I think the Babylonian exile of the Hebrews must have been like that.
He does mention Bede and other chroniclers as a key source of the error - they portrayed the replacement of Christianity by paganism as a brutal process of slaughter rather than assimilation. They had to really. And of course our stories about the Vikings are very influenced by similar prejudice. That's not to say they were cuddly.
I like the idea of cuddly Vikings. Sensitive caring Vikings.
Oh noes! We've started the LOLVikings craze! ;-)
Edited at 2009-08-26 08:31 am (UTC)
I wonder what all the stuff translated 'waste' in the Domesday Survey actually meant, then?
You mean uninhabited land? I think that's more to do with trade routes, agricultural technology, and disease. I think populations declined after the Romans left, but not through invasion/replacement by another population.
I think that's something that mraltariel and I would disagree on - in the nicest possible way. I think, and I hope I'm not putting words into his mouth, he would feel that the peasant population was essential unaffected by a change in rulership, and the Dark Ages didn't feel all that dark to the indigenous Brits. I think it probably did, because of trade and travel becoming harder, but it's only a guess.
I think that they *are* affected by the global recession of the end of the Roman period (in much the same way as we feel this one; shops get boarded up in towns, people leave various parts of the country and go after work or security elsewhere, great towns decline and small towns almost disappear, either economically or socially). But for most people, their position in society (largely agricultural, bonded to the land) is mostly unchanged. Just as now, in fact.
Unless, of course, you are in the elite (i.e. townsfolk tied to the army or civil service) in which case your mode of life changes quite significantly - or, at least, that of your children does from yours.
But then, my mode of life is substantially different from my parents', and it doesn't seem "shocking" to me - I just know it is different. My mother probably feels it more than me, but then, isn't that always the lot of parents and children?
Even in Britain, parts Romanized several generations before the Claudian invasion, and parts remained Roman-ish for several *generations* afterwards. The Boudiccan revolt was probably as much (if not more) of a shock intra-generationally as the departure of the legions was a few centuries later.
It is only with the wider sweep of history that we see this a fundamental change of character. Indeed, this is, I believe, a large part of the thrust of S.O.'s argument.
For example, I understand that we actually lose more towns and villages in the medieval period than we do in the post-Roman period, but we don't obsess about that calamity as a culture. Why? I would suggest that it is because we (in Britain) didn't obsess about the medieval period when we were doing our high-Victorian Empire building; we called on classical models for our self-justification. We gave the British Empire legitimacy by calling on the Roman Empire as a civilizing influence, so when the Roman Empire fell, what followed must have been awful by comparison. This was taught in our schools for generations, and, even when other evidence of continuity is presented, we find it difficult to shake off the general idea. From a European perspective in particular, there's hardly any notable change at all in that period! It is generally accepted that things carried on much as they did that past age.
BTW, I thoroughly recommend Barry Cunliffe's excellent book "Europe Between the Oceans 9000BC - AD1000" for a thorough overview of the whole sweep of this, with slightly less of S.O.'s melodrama (entertaining though it is, and broadly in agreement with him though I am!)
I thought you must have been keen on Oppenheimer when I read yesterday that he thought the Germanic languages came to Britain before the Roman Occupation, which I remember you have argued for.
I agree that 'what we were taught at school' never make sense. I think this is a feature of a lot of what one was taught at school. You would mull it over and realise that it internally didn't hang together. But, from a position of ignorance it was hard to construct an alternative. And it still is I think.
Thanks for the recommendation of the Cunliffe book: will definitely read.
I wouldn't say I was all that keen on Oppenheimer, though. There's a touch of "the holy blood and the holy grail" about his more enthusiastic extrapolations, despite the fundamental soundness of his basis for argument.
I'm utterly ignorant on the countrywide picture, but locally many of the manors in the Domesday survey had a non-zero tax value before the Norman arrival, but were marked as a word usually translated as 'waste' afterwards -- the local history books I've read go with the idea that they were destroyed by the Normans during the suppression of various uprisings, but that's obviously only speculation.
Could it be down to this
Ah, that's probably what our local history books were talking about! So the invasion/pacification perhaps did substantially reduce the population in the north west, but the overall effect on the British gene pool wasn't large.