on 27 February 2009
When I decided to purchase this book, I was mistakenly under the impression that it was going to be accessible to the layman with a curiosity in the subject matter. However, while it's not exactly a "stuffy textbook", it can get overly technical and difficult to digest. At times I felt like giving up, particularly around the middle which, featured almost nothing but heavy statistics and data. However, I persevered onwards, and I'm very glad that I did.
This book was an extremely fascinating read and one that has completely shattered many of the preconceived notions that I had of the English, the Celts, and "Britishness" as a whole. Yes, sometimes it did feel like you need a Ph.D. in History, Archaeology and Linguistics all in one to be able to follow it, but if you're interested enough in the subject to be willing to plough through all of that, then you'll find this a treasure trove worth of information.
on 27 February 2011
As usual Stephen Oppenheimer meanders through existing evidence old and new in order to weave out a legible tapestry of history. Whilst I and others may not agree fully with all the findings it must be accepted that he has produced an exceptional piece of work around which it is now possible to set a new benchmark for the understanding of migration of peoples to the Isles of Greater Britain. Mistakes of past historians are defabricated and then reconstructed in simple terms so that a broader picture unfurls showing greater definition.
'The Origins of the British' will provide you with ammunition to throw at television historians that constantly regurgitate old school perspectives upon our past. I guarantee that if you have any interest in archeology, history, genetic study, or linguistics then this publication is a must, one that may well set you on a route of learning which is crying out for future examination.
on 29 August 2007
A number of books tracing the origins of the peoples of the Isles have appeared recently. While not perfect, this is the best so far, considerably superior to the rather superficial treatment in "The Blood of the Isles" by Bryan Sykes and "The Face of Britain" by Robin McKie. Oppenheimer considers all aspects of the evidence, for example linguistics, not just genetics, and lays out the evidence in much more detail than Sykes and McKie. Nevertheless, the book remains very readable if you have an interest in the subject.
A number of writers on the subject assume that the genetic makeup of the population of England before the Anglo-Saxon period must have been the same as that of Wales and Ireland, and that any differences must be down to the Anglo-Saxons or Vikings. Oppenheimer shows that this is unlikely to be true. This fits in well with other work, showing that in ancient times the sea was often a highway and the land a barrier, rather than vice versa.
Oppenheimer's idea that some of the population of eastern England in pre-Roman times may have spoken a Germanic language is somewhat less convincing, but he presents the evidence such as it is fairly and leaves it to the reader to decide whether to agree or disagree.
on 19 June 2009
I found Stephen Oppenheimer's tome utterly fascinating and a thoroughly rewarding read. Yes there are typos, but the core ideas are well argued and the author draws extensively on archaeological, anthropological, historical and genetic-based research. Despite completing a PhD in Roman Archaeology at UCL I too found 'The Origins of the British' bloody hard going and would recommend; (a) that you read the conclusion before reading the chapter, and (b) read the book twice!
on 28 November 2015
This book , published a decade ago , is now hopelessly out of date . The central thrust of the text is as follows ; Brits and Irish are descended primarily from Iberian Hunter Gatherers who trekked along the Atlantic coast about 14,000-12,000 years ago . Their genetic legacy accounts for 75% of modern British ancestry. All subsequent migratons had little impact on the genetic makeup of Brits. Anglo-Saxons , as well as other migrants - including Neolithic farmers , had a very small genetic impact .
These claims can no longer be supported , mainly thanks to ancient DNA findings.
The world of genetics has advanced with breathtaking speed since the publication of this book ; leaving Oppenheimers work looking like a quaint throwback to a time when genetic studies had advanced only in baby steps ,and the prevailing theories had an over reliance on decades old anti-migrationist archeological theories , as well as a determination (politically motivated?) that Britons were the descendants of people who had inhabited these islands since the end of the Ice Age .It seems in fact that very little of British ancestry can be traced to those Hunter Gatherers .Comparing modern British DNA to pre-Copper Age European DNA , this is blindingly obvious .
The Neolithic saw huge migration from the Near East, eventually creating quite a homogenous Neolithic European population best represented today by the Sardinian people. A Neolithic Irish females genome is very similar to Sardinians. Incidentally , Basques also received a substantial genetic input from farmers , among others ,thereby disproving Oppenhiemers theory that modern Basques represent native European Hunter Gatherer purity.
But these farmers were largely replaced too because the Copper and Bronze ages saw Brits becoming more like modern inhabitants of these isles ( a period around 2,500 - 2,000 BC ) ; it is very likely that R1b-L21 males (the most common Irish and British male lineage) entered at this point through either a massive founder effect , or substantial migration from the continent - probably with Bell Beaker people . It has been found in ancient DNA in Rathlin , N.Ireland from around 4,000 years ago. Also these samples are very different from the Neolithic Irish female mentioned previously . They are very similar to modern Irish and Welsh. And we know R1b-L21 is far too young to have been established in the Isles before the Copper Age. It certainly wasn't brought by Iberian hunters 14,000 years ago.
Bell Beakers seem to have made a big impact on the British genome and , until better evidence emerges from ancient DNA , it could be reasonably argued that well over half of the Isles ancestry can be traced to these, and very similar, Copper and Bronze Age peoples. They also brought a new genetic component with them - steppe DNA - previously absent in the West , possibly supporting the theory that Bell Beaker R1b people came from the east. Others believe it expanded from the west - more ancient DNA will clarify things.
It can now be estimated (through studying ancient DNA again) that around 30-40% of English ancestry can be assigned to Germanic settlers . These Anglo-Saxons, and likely Danish Vikings , had less influence in western and far northern Britain . In the case of Orkney , Shetland and the Western Isles and Highlands, Norse Vikings left a detectable trace of DNA.
Anglo-Saxons did not wipe out the natives . They likely arrived in large numbers , and eventually mixed with the Celts - but the Anglo-Saxons were also the ruling elite, and their culture and language quickly became dominant .They pull the modern English populations genomes more towards the North Sea as a consequence , towards the Dutch and the Danish. Iron Age DNA from Cambridgeshire also suggests this change did indeed occur . So the growing number of academic studies, using ancient DNA, is blowing apart Oppenheimers theory of minimal migration and small genetic impact of the Anglo-Saxons.
Oppenheimers idea of Germanic languages pre-dating the Anglo Saxon migrations in England remains highly unorthodox and is a part of the book that I found particularly tedious. Historical sources contradict his theory , genetics also suggest he is wrong.
So in effect modern English can likely trace about 2/3 of their ancestry to people establishing themselves in the Isles about 4,000 years ago - the rest is made up of post-Roman settlers , the Anglo-Saxons. Scots, Irish and Welsh are less influenced by Anglo-Saxons, as you might expect. We await more data from ancient samples to challenge this scenario.
Since its publication ten years ago there have been no revised editions of this book , incorporating the mass of data both from ancient and modern DNA studies . That alone suggests the author knows the game is up .
The Origins of the British still make for contentious and fascinating debate amongst the people of these isles and this work adds strongly to the discussion. The purpose of the book appears to be to establish genetic analysis to the existing archaelogical and linguistic history built up over the centuries. Genetics is clearly still in it's infancy but it is a massive step forward in understanding the past.
Oppenheimer's work lays out the genetic influences of the British population (excluding post-WWII immigration) and his findings are well worth knowing. The genetic analysis sets out the post-Ice Age colonisation phases and the most significant plus points of the book are the genetic debunking of wipeout theories and the co-existance of Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic peoples in Britain.
The spread of western European peoples from Ice Age refuges and the development of culture and language inevitably means that the peoples of those countries are somewhat similar. What Oppenheimer's analysis of the genetic research shows is that there are observable differences and that those differences can trace a history of Britain that has had far less intrusion from overseas than is typically suggested.
There are two issues that I have with the book - the writing is not of the highest quality and the genetics themselves are not well explained. The writing does not flow and is tough going, I did feel as though I was reading a dissertation at times and not an especially well written one. This is not really popular science and the logical chain is not easy to follow as Oppenheimer leaps into asides and tangents.
I really do though wish that the genetics had been better and more fully exposed. Traditional history is interesting but hardly new. The movement of genes deserved a fuller treatment and there is not one point in Oppenheimer's work in which he lays out explicitly the genetic map of Britain.
Overall, this is the sort of book to read if you really do want to delve into some of the science and the emerging picture that genetics paints of north western Europe. It is not a light read and it raises more questions than it answers but the broad overview that the detail conjures is a great platform for better understanding who we British are.
on 12 April 2010
'The origins of the British' is a revolutionary change in our understanding of the settlement of Britain. I was totally surprised by the results of the genetic research.
I have been so captivated by the book that I decided to obtain Y-DNA test, just to see where I belong in the genetic family tree of Britain.
While we in North America have a distressing tendency to lump most of the inhabitants of the British Isles together, those living there are aware of their diversity. That awareness has been carried rather to extremes by some scholars and politicians. "What is a Celt?" has been a key question, as has been its follow-up "What really happened to the Celts?" Tied in with these queries is the problem of finding an origin for the Celts and just what language they spoke. Stephen Oppenheimer addresses these and related issues in a comprehensive "detective story" incorporating history, analytical genetics and linguistic studies. His conclusions, well depicted in this provocative study, will prove surprising to some, and perhaps distressing to a few.
The British Isles, he begins, have the advantage of being invaders of a "terra nullius" [uninhabited land] some fifteen thousand years ago. As the Last Glacial Maximum retreated before the rise of a revived warm period, humans were able to enter a land they'd been driven from thousands of years previously. While this situation offers nothing to the historian, archaeologists and geneticists have a clear starting point for placing and dating the migration. Not an island then, Britain was a peninsula jutting out from the European land mass. That provided an easy route from the Mediterranean shoreline, around what is now Iberia to the southern and western coasts of Britain. Since "western" here now means Eire, it's clear the first adjustment of opinion must accommodate Ireland and Britain. Clearly, there were later population movements, but where did they originate, how long did they last and what numbers of people were involved? Most significantly, what languages did they speak?
From his introductory survey, Oppenheimer proceeds to tease out the answers to these questions. The origins are traced back in time using genetic markers. Mitochondrial DNA, carried down the generations only through female inheritance factors provides one scenario. The Y chromosome, the genetic marker for men is analysed separately, then compared. In most, although not all cases, the matches are mutually supportive. Archaeological finds are used as further indicators which have the advantage of solid dating techniques to support them, unlike the DNA tests which rest on a calculation based on presumed mutation rates. The language question remains contentious. Oppenheimer links it with the spread of farming entering Europe from Anatolia introducing early forms of Celtic into Western Europe. The author's genetic analysis also overturns the idea that farmers "displaced" earlier hunter-gatherer societies in Europe and Britain. Instead, farming was adapted by the resident population and farmers' larger families added some population pressure, but hardly "displacement". The same holds true for the Roman occupation, which was more interested in social stability and tax collecting than genocide.
The post-Roman era has also led to the establishment of displacement myths and their more recent overturning. History, partly thanks to reliance on "Saint" Gildas, has stoked the fires of national sentiments by depicting the Angles and Saxons as a barbarian horde bent on ethnic cleansing of the indigenous "Celtic" peoples. Oppenheimer rejects this tradition, arguing instead that a "warrior elite" may have entered Britain, but this was a small population and a continuation of British-Continental ties in any case. Just who those "barbarians" were is problematic in any case, since the author sees ongoing contact with the Frisian and near shore of Europe rather than a conquering horde emerging from northern Germany. It is now generally accepted that the Norman "Conquest" was only slightly more intrusive than the Roman one, with an elite doing the ruling and the long-lasting indigenous population doing everything else like farming, herding and trading.
A major issue here is language. Linguists, Oppenheimer argues have been keen to avoid dating of language branching, mostly because early attempts came to grief. He goes so far as to separate "Celtic" populations from "celtic" languages. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a written base of celtic to use as a foundation. The Classical Period commentators in Greece and Rome wrote of "Celts" in a vague sort of way, and even a man on the ground, Julius Caesar was unable to make definitive comments about either the people or their languages. More precise cultural details were omitted entirely. Oppenheimer's path through the language issues is inevitably a tortured one, but he makes a serious effort at simplification. Whatever his success is due to a paucity of real data. For him, the genes speak louder than words. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 6 June 2007
Oppenheimer contends that Britain's genetic stock is driven by migrations from glaciation refuges such as the Basque region and the Balkans. The `Celtic' fringe forms part of an Atlantic coastal zone of influence from Iberia active from 15,000 years ago. Nearly the entire source of western Britain's gene pool is from `Ruisko' and its re-expansions R1b-9, R1b-5 and R1b-14, as well as R1b-10, the main gene cluster moving into the British Isles during the Mesolithic. In contrast, eastern England produces a more mixed picture starting with the I1c group spreading from the Balkans just before the Younger-Dryas reglaciation but then complicated by waves from different directions (e.g. I1a during the late Mesolithic, J1a from N Germany, J1b1 from Norway as well as the Neolithic re-expansion of R1b-12). However, whilst some of the gene maps look superficially convincing, others don't: I1c being a case in point; I1b2 with a strange and unexplained Sardinian foundation event even more so.
Less controversial is the now accepted argument that there was no Celtic homeland in Central Europe associated with Hallstatt and La Tène. However, Oppenheimer draws on research suggesting that the Celtic language group may have broken away from the Germanic and Romance languages thousands of years prior to the sort of time most linguists would expect. The old P-Celtic and Q-Celtic division is swept away and even the strange Vennemann Hypothesis is brought in regarding a possible Atlantic-Semitic substrate.
There does turn out to be a marked watershed between eastern England and western Britain but the difference goes back much further than the Germanic invasions of which Gildas and Bede speak. Potentially, this is where the book gets interesting as, Oppenheimer aside, there are real problems surrounding the `Anglo-Saxon' invasions and the origins of English. What happened to Brythonic, the Celtic language which is supposed to have been spoken across England prior to the fifth century? According to Gildas and later commentators, there was some mass extermination (and potentially even apartheid) but nobody has ever stumbled upon a mass grave and there are hardly any loan words from Celtic languages in Old English. According to Oppenheimer, it is because it wasn't spoken in much of England.
Caesar famously starts his Gallic Wars by explaining that Gaul is divided into three - the northern part being Belgic. It is likely that this area was Germanic speaking for the most part and when Roman writers say that Britain was much like France opposite it, they are really implying not Celtic populations - but Germanic ones. So perhaps Britain already had large areas speaking a Germanic language as `lingua franca'. That might explain the situation with the Atrebates - a tribal name which appears on both sides of the Channel but Oppenheimer neglects to mention the Ogham inscription found at Silchester - their capital.
Suddenly Oppenheimer is all over the shop. English gets mooted as a fourth branch of Germanic, having more in common with the Scandinavian languages than Western Germanic. Everything is brought in to support this: runic inscriptions (with no analysis of the futhorc differences), Beowulf (with completely spurious comments on its dialect, no consideration of the fact that formal poetry is always `conservative' or why the odd seemingly Celtic word turns up: `Com on wanre niht scrithan sceadugenga'), coin distributions etc. He almost manages to disprove himself: if the people here before the fifth century were similar to Nordic populations and used runes, they couldn't have been the same people who were guarding the `Saxon' Shore because there have never been any discoveries of runic inscriptions along the supposedly densely-populated South Coast.
Oppenheimer is an amateur geneticist but he sounds convincing at it (at least to me). In contrast, his analysis of the early `Saxon' period is riddled with holes: no mention of St Albans and its absence of pagan cemeteries, no mention of Cerdic - the British name connected with the foundation of Wessex, no mention of the fact that according to self-penned Anglo-Saxon histories some places such as the Cotswolds were not under Anglo-Saxon control until the end of the 570s, no mention of how long Bernicia might have stayed outside of the newcomers' influence. No mention either of things that might help his case: of Britain's links under Rome with Trier, or the continuity implied by the Hwicce's use of Bath (or who they might be); no thought about whether Offa's Dyke might turn out to be far older than Offa. However, I do like his clear distinction separating Angles from Saxons - it is interesting that Danish Vikings only invaded those areas of Anglian settlement (with the one exception inside Danegeld being Essex).
He misses something really obvious though and it was right in front of him in his source material. Bede actually mentions the Danes living in England before the attacks on the coast. He also mentions the Rugini, a people who we know moved from the Baltic region to Central Europe and then moved with Attila, and the Boructuari (Boructware). Significantly we also know that some Germanic pottery found in England seems to predate 410. There is also no speculation as to why Kent and the Franks should have such tight cultural links (Frankish names, the conversion to Christianity, AEthelberht's daughter's protection under Dagobert I).
Once the idea that pre-5th century Britain was exclusively Romano-Celtic is ditched, all sorts of other ideas beyond Oppenheimer are raised. Are we even looking in the right century for the Arthur legend? Was the call from tribes in Britain for help from Rome in response to a resurfacing Germano-British conflict? Was Berikos / Varica in some way connected with Berkshire - a name which has created some problems up until now? When the Franks claim control over Kent, is this a sign of an ongoing division between East and West Kent (which resurfaces) and between Jutes and Franks? Haplotypes, mtDNA and NRY gene groups won't answer these questions.
on 21 May 2012
I remember reading about Celtic 'history' as a child and struggling to understand the orthodox narrative, which seemed to be largely contradictory. In this astonishing survey of years of painstaking genetic analysis, we learn why this 'history' of the Celtic, and British, peoples is so confused: it's because it's not true. Not one iota. Oppenheimer's superb scientific research has conclusively trashed the myth of the British being a 'mongrel race' and put to bed the confused and largely incorrect history of the peopling of Britain specifically and Europe in general. We owe him all an enormous debt and historians better take note: Science is coming for you!