Following on from Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes talks about the genetic evidence that supports (or disputes) traditional myth / history of the various parts of the Isles (his neutral term for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales).
The style is very chatty, presumably to counterpoint the detailed science bits; I did find that this made it read too much like Bill Bryson as I wasn't sure that reading about the ice cream being sampled on tour collecting DNA really added much to the development of the book.
I also felt let down that having set out a stall, mentioned a much earlier survey of hair / eye colour that showed regional differences, the book stops suddenly whilst beginning the development of the England story.
I almost think this was brought out to keep interest up whilst the overall work continues, and imagine that there will be further editions of this.
on 10 October 2010
An earlier review states:
"much of ths book is devoted to relating Dark Age myths, and anecdotes about the author's time collecting DNA samples, and the style is chatty, at times verging on the patronising"
I am broadly in agreement with this assessment, the book does seem to have been hastily written. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a great deal about the genetic roots of the peoples of the British isles. I would venture to say that Bryan Sykes's mix of archeological evidence, written history, and mythology truly gets the most out of genetic studies. I had so much fun that I'm giving it 5 stars.
on 9 April 2014
This is a totally engrossing book for anyone interested in British history or in genetics. The crux of the book is DNA and the genetic origins of the British people but is explained in such a beautiful way that you do not need to be a genetic scientist to understand it. In fact, myself, who has no scientific background fully understood it and found it extremely fascinating.
As Bryan Sykes explains 'this is living history, told by the real survivors of the times. the DNA that still lives within our bodies. This really is the history of the people by the people'
The author combines the findings of his genetic studies with the history, legend and folklore of the islands, Great Britain and Ireland.
He explains how in his first book The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry he discovered concrete evidence that Europeans have a predominant hunter-gatherer ancestry from people who settled on the continent 40 000 years ago or more and NOT as was commonly disseminated , by farmers from the Middle East who were supposed to have entered Europe 10 000 years ago.
In the second Chapter of the book 'who do we think we are' Sykes examines the prevailing beliefs, dogma and myths of the past about British history and origins, including the false understanding that the English are close cousins of the Germans through being descended from the Anglos-Saxon invaders who conquered what is now England in the 500-700s CE/AD.
The DNA findings effectively debunk these beliefs (espoused by among others Nazi sympathizers who sadly still exist in England, who believe the Germans are the closest cousins of the English and it was a travesty that the English fought their German brothers in the two world wars (or were tricked into doing so in the case of World War II by the 'wicked Jews')
Instead he reveals that almost the entire mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed down from the females genes) in England is from the Ibero-Celtic peoples that arrived in Britain 10 000 years ago and is fundamentally the same as that in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
'Even if the entire population of Jutes, Angles and Saxons arrived in Britain, that that could have exterminated all of the Britons, , with their centuries of experience of Roman military tactics. Even if they had managed to kill all the men they would not have managed to kill all the women'
And hence how the DNA proves this. The overwhelming majority of the matrilineal descent of the people in England has stayed constant for ten thousand years, from the original inhabitants of Britain , who were there 8000 years before the Anglo-Saxons settled in what is now England.
As Sykes clearly states ' 'On our maternal side almost all of us are Celts'
'The matrilineal history of the Isles is both ancient and continuous. I see no reason at all from the results why many of our maternal lineages should not go right through the millennia to the very first Paleolithic and Mesolithic settlers who reached our islands around 10 000 years ago. The average settlement dates of 8000 years ago fits in with this.'
As for the Y chromosome (passed down through the male gene) 'still there are far more people with Celtic ancestry in England, , even in the far East of England, than can claim to be of Saxon or Danish descent. In the west of England, the patrilineal line too is almost all Celtic, while in the south approximately 10% of the men now living in the south of England are the patrilineal descendants of Saxons or Danes, this increases to 15% above the Danelaw line, and at the most in England in East Anglia is 20%. So so much for the article in the Daily Mail entitled 'We are all Germans' - that is simply not true.
'Overall the genetic structure of the Isles is overwhelmingly Celtic, if by that we mean descent from those who were here before the Romans and who spoke a Celtic language' All the invasions and opposed settlements since Julius Caesar have barely scratched the surface.
Each chapter on the genetics of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales is preceded by overall histories of these country's in the early periods, and their mythology and folklore (even if you know most of the information Sykes writes in a way which is a pleasure to read.)
I was intrigued to read that there a small number of people in the south of England who can trace ancestry through mitochondria (therefore the female line unbroken) to subsaharan Africa and the Middle East, most likely descendants of slaves brought by the Romans, whose lines have carried on through the generations through unbroken lines of women . As a Jew , I find the idea that there may be found in some people in England who do not know it who carry mitochondrial DNA from generations ago from Jewish women intriguing.
He traces the main ancestry of the Shetland and Orkney islands to Vikings. His style is always engaging and chatty, I enjoyed the anecdotes, and the humour. This is one of the better books on the topics for laymen and historians without degrees in genetic science.
In the field of DNA and history would also recommend the work by Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman DNA and Tradition: The Genetic Link to the Ancient Hebrews to the Ancient Hebrews which traces the ancestry of modern day Jews to ancient Israel.
on 11 December 2010
This interesting work is easily accessible to anybody who does not hold a detailed knowledge of genetics. Professor Sykes skillfully illustrates every chapter on each of the countries of the islands with a previous paragraph outlining some of the history of the nation.
Having grown up in a patriarchal society giving us surnames through our fathers, it changes our views of ourselves in highlighting the importance of the matriarchal line, which is just as much responsible for our existence as the father's.
Above all he successfully (to my mind) debunks theories of migration of whole peoples/linguistic groups through systematically challenging the taxonomy of peoples through blood groups, hair and eye colour, cranial measurements or other external features. When you get down to the DNA, such means of viewing people seem ridiculous.
For me it is very much a book of our time and the conclusion he makes about the origin of the nations of these islands in the last chapter made a lot of sense to me. (I won't tell you what he concludes - you'll have to read it).
on 25 October 2008
The strength of this book is its analysis of the female mitochondrial and male Y chromosome 'clans' of the British Isles, traced by the author's Oxford University group of geneticists, and its explanation of how this information is used to throw light on people's origins. However, much of ths book is devoted to relating Dark Age myths, and anecdotes about the author's time collecting DNA samples, and the style is chatty, at times verging on the patronising.
Some of his assumptions appear to me dubious. He assumes that if the DNA analysis shows that immigration was both male and female, this shows it was peaceful, but this is not borne out by experience elsewhere. The European settlement of Australia and North America was by families, but this did not prevent the settlers from violently seizing the land of the existing inhabitants.
I found the conclusion particularly disappointing. In general he accepts the view that farming was spread by diffusion of knowledge to the hunter gatherers rather than large scale immigration by farmers, yet in the final chapter he suggests that there was an early occupation by a small number of Mesolithic hunter gatherers, and later larger scale immigration by farmers. This is all the more confusing as it appears to be based on the distribution of the farming 'Jasmine' mitochondrial clan, but these were only 10% of female genes on his own figures, and the Helena clan who are nearly 50% are barely discussed. Which clan did the early Mesolithic inhabitants belong to and where did they come from? What was their contribution to the population of the British Isles today? These and other points are not discussed.
Several reviewers of Stephen Oppenheimer's 'The Origins of the British' rated it as much better than this book, and I agree with them.
on 25 November 2014
I thought there would be more genetics in it, but the female and male lineages were fairly well explained-some clear diagrams and maps would have helped hugely. The iron age and medieval history was refreshingly accurate, and the 'celtic' linguistics were dealt with in an appropriate curtness that i particularly enjoyed. However, as the genetic evidence goes back to an entirely different era-the mesolithic, i would have expected a closer attempt to relate it to migrations of that period, that were barely touched on. There were no links to the bronze age trade, which may explain the results for Wales. I spent more time looking at the data in the appendix than reading the book. It's always good to find typos; makes me feel better about my own proofreading. The website link was not more data details, but an invitation to buy stuff. All in all though a book in keeping with the zeitgeist of the times, that the 10000 years before the Romans invaded these shores were more important, genetically than the 2000 years after.
on 28 March 2015
A wonderful book for anyone interested in human genetics. The British (English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh) ancestory seems to be much the same now as when these islands were first cut off from the Mainland of Europe when the sea level rose after the last Ice Age. People who like History will love this book as it sheds light on the period before written records. Professor Bryan Cox has also written several other books, tracing the human species back over one hundred thousand years, on every continent. All are superb. I would in particular recommend The Seven Daughters of Eve, and DNA USA.;
on 28 October 2013
For those like me who are fascinated by the migrations of our ancestors and how this has come to make us what we are today,this book is a must. I love the way Bryan Sykes writes.While explaining something scientifically based and complex he manages to make it explicit and easy to follow and reaches his public by adding anecdotes about himself.and his style of writing is quite often amusing. I loved it and I strongly recommend it.
on 6 March 2014
The bulk of this book is occupied with narrative summaries of the history of the constituent parts of the British Isles. The author seems almost apologetic about the scientific content of what he has to say, so the rather dull and somewhat inaccurate historical accounts get too much exposure, and the science too little. The scientific element that comes off best is the account of blood groups and their distribution throughout different regions. Some of straight historical stuff is debatable, and some clearly misunderstood. In particular it's best to be extremely wary of the stuff about "celts" - it looks as if Sykes is following one of the numerous crackpot writers on this tendentious subject, and ends up confusing himself.
Perhaps the author intended this to be a beginner's book, and I expected too much.
on 6 February 2013
Chatty and readable, this book deserves credit for exciting interest in a new angle on the early history of the British Isles.
The key problem for me is that, despite extensive genetic sampling, Professor Sykes' research appears to either lack statistical rigour or his results lacked statistical significance. Early on in the book he criticises some historians for moulding inconvenient facts to suit their own pre-conceptions, then frequently does the same himself in the rest of the book. Freeing himself of the constraints of scientific rigour he makes up interpretations of the data to support the celtic myth.
It is frustrating that there is no analysis of results for the region he defines as Strathclyde, as this is an area of British and Anglian populations which could provide an interesting comparision to the area of the Picts further north -- presumably there is little difference. Also frustrating is any genetic analysis comparing areas of Britain with the suppposed Anglo-Saxon homelands in Northern Europe.
A much better coverage of the subject, although correspondingly a much tougher read, is "origins of the British" by Stephen Openheimer.