Face of Britain: How Our Genes Reveal the History of Britain Hardcover – 2 Jan 2007
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However, there were a few areas that let the book down. As a previous reviewer has pointed out, basic mistakes (such as labelling the Welsh language as Gaelic) made me wonder what else the author had got wrong.
This book also left me confused as to who McKie was referring to when he was talking about the early Britons (who apparently provided modern Britain with most of its DNA). Who were the people who left the `red-hair' gene? I was never sure when he was referring to the ancient people who came to the Isles 10,000 or so years ago, or to the `Celtic' peoples who arrived later. He seemed to skip from 10,000 years ago straight to Anglo-Saxons, without making much distinction between the pre-Anglo-Saxon people.
Other than these two faults, the book overall was interesting and easy to read. I would recommend, but I will be reading other books in this genre first to try and clear up some of the areas that McKie left hanging.
Anyone raised in Britain knows that Britain has had waves of immigrants – Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. We have vague notions that certain tribes settled in certain areas, that some intermarried with the pre-existing population and some didn’t, and that some had distinctive characteristics. We fondly imagine that such characteristics are still distinguishable in Britons from certain regions today. Some go so far as to claim descent from an illustrious lineage of a particular tribe. Very romantic, if not Romantic.
Most of this book is based on results from the continuing People of the British Isles project, which, at the time this book was written, had analyzed DNA samples from 100 to 150 people from each of about 30 rural locations. All are volunteers but are accepted only if all four of their grandparents came from the same area. Although the main aim of the project is to help medical research, this book focuses on what the project tells us about genetic groupings in Britain and how that evidence fits with historical and archaeological evidence. Some of the findings are consistent with the received wisdom, whereas some are not. All of it is interesting.
There is also a chapter on the connection between genes on the Y chromosome and surnames (both passed down through the male line) and changes in the distribution of surnames across Britain over time.
Genetics is a fast-moving field and this book was published in 2006, so is it still relevant? Yes, because Robin McKie writes with great precision, being careful to distinguish what was actually known as the time of writing from what was conjectured. Here’s a great example of how this care has paid off. When discussing Boxgrove Man, the remains of a 500,000-year-old member of Homo heidelbergensis, McKie says:
“dark skin is thought to be an adaptation to strong sunlight, pale skin to a lack of it… If the people of Boxgrove were longstanding residents, and not recent immigrants from more southerly regions, they may therefore have been relatively light-skinned. As to their eyes, scientists believe blue eyes are a modern evolutionary feature among humans, and so it is likely that these may well have been green- or brown-eyed, though this notion is pure conjecture.”
In January 2014, New Scientist magazine reported on the genetic analysis of the remains of a 7,000-year-old human male found in a Spanish cave: He had dark skin and blue eyes, confounding the researchers’ predictions. So scientists now know that blue eyes evolved before, rather than after, light skin as our ancestors moved north. But this doesn’t invalidate McKie’s account because he clearly marked his conclusion as conjecture.
I thought the TV series of sufficient interest to buy the DVD (see separate review), but the series was geographically specific whereas I wondered what a fuller national picture might tell. This book did not provide the answers, since it quickly became aware that Bodmer’s tests were themselves concentrated only in those localities featured on screen, although it is noted that his is only a pilot study: “further locations are scheduled to be added in future years.” So, alas, we have no samples from mainland Scotland, only one area in Wales, and a whole swathe of midland England is missing. But this does not mean that this book does not merit a wide readership. It certainly answered some of my questions, if not all.
In the first chapter, which is really a preface, McKie points out that “medicine was the prime motivating factor for the setting up of the project,” history and archaeology being beneficiaries riding piggyback. He says his book “is not an account of the intricacies of human genetics … Equally, this is not a history book.” Rather, it looks at the influences that created the genetic make-up of the British population, including “one of the most striking discoveries to have been made in the field in the past few years: that most of the genes of the British people today can be traced to the very first people who settled on the land more than 12,000 years ago. We may have some Viking blood or Anglo-Saxon genes or hail from a Norman family, but, deep under our skin, the majority of the British population are really Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”
Chapter two, elegantly written, takes us into Bodmer’s laboratory and describes the processes involved. McKie cleverly uses the gene for red-headedness as an entry point into considering the earliest inhabitants of Britain, from which he then considers the vexed question of ‘the Celts’. (Note, if the gene is missing from Cumbria, does this mean they are not Cymri after all?)
McKie’s journalistic style does not mean a sensationalist approach: he takes us by the hand and communicates well both the essence and much of the detail of the subject at hand. He is a science editor, after all, and his perceptive observations – and jokes – pepper the text, such as the origins of Britain’s disposable society (prehistoric hand axes) or that the tag ‘Made in Britain’ can be traced to Norfolk 60,000 years ago. If I have a grudge concerning his style, it is the use of ‘He says’ rather than footnotes.
The remainder of the book is often a whistle-stop tour of Britain’s genetic and cultural history. For instance, chapter four starts with the introduction of farming in the Neolithic and ends thousands of years later with the end of Roman Britain. But genetically, there was little apparent change over this period apart from the rise of lactose tolerance in adults. McKie posits the introduction of farming from France into Kent, but new evidence also points towards Ireland being another (and earlier?) point of entry from Iberia and the Pyrenees.
But this points – for me – to one of the book’s prime failings. If genetics has determined that the descendants of the original post-Ice Age settlers in Britain stayed and form the bulk of today’s population, what were the genetic contrasts with contemporaries on the European continent? In other words, how exclusive was/is British genetics, and to what extent was/is it shared with our neighbours in different parts of the continent?
It is also unfortunate that the way McKie has presented Bodmer’s methodology allows for elementary questions to be raised of its essential first-principals. These appear based on immense assumptions. For example, why does Bodmer rate the Cornish as genetically the most ancient of the Britons? We are told this is “because this is where these people are most likely to have ended up.”
With regard to the old chestnut about the extent and content of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the jury is still out, McKie introducing us to results of other research. (Alas, he does not explore the obvious correlation of the Franks invading France but then speaking the native Latin-based French instead of German.) But there are some definite surprises where the Vikings are concerned – in Orkney, Dublin, and Cumbria – but the greatest surprise of all is in Iceland!
The book ends with two chapters on facial reconstructions and the links between DNA and surnames. McKie makes the valid point that the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA (on which all this research is based) trace only two of the myriad lineages of each person. Even going back only to our grandparents, half of our DNA is ignored in these kind of studies. That increases to three-quarters by the time of our great-grandparents and increases exponentially the further back one goes. So to talk of the genetic origins of individuals is really a misnomer when only the Y-chromosome and mDNA is explored.
Still, McKie’s book is a good place to start on this important and potentially tendentious subject. Who knows what advances will be made in the years to come – or, indeed, have already been made. It seems a subject rich for further revelations and readers of this review might also want to check out the books by Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes.
And, as someone with a lay interest in the subject, I found that there is plenty that was new to me, for example the work of Sir Walter Bodmer on DNA and much of the material in the chapter about the significance of red hair.
I can strongly recommend the book as a readable explanation of where we in the British Isles come from that does question accepted ideas
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Sykes never fails to raise the bar. Others may jump but none jump higher.
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