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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 20 March 2009
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.
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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!
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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]
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on 8 May 2007
This book is the real deal. There is a lot of competition on the market at the moment but the depth and quality of the information given in this book is way ahead of any of the others. I agree with the reviewer who said that it was a difficult read, but it is worth persevering with because the story it tells is so interesting and covers so many of the anomalies and questions. With respect to another reviewer, it's true that there is no definite evidence of Germanic languages coming in with the Belgae but it is not impossible and it would tackle the problem of continuity at a time when Britain was supposed to be in turmoil. His central argument is that there is a genetic faultline between the Celtic fringe and England, but that faultline was already in place long before the Roman invasion. Leaving aside his speculation, which I think is intelligent, valid and always labelled as such, the core of factual evidence in this book is terrific. Also beautifully presented with loads of maps. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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on 1 March 2007
Mr Oppenhiemer has written a detailed account of the various genetic contributions to Britain from the first wave of migrants from the Iberian peninsula followinfg the melting ice flows after the Ice Age onwards.

He comes up with some interesting conclusions:
(a) that the first permanent settlers of the British Isles moved up the Atlantic coast from an Ice Age refuge in Basque country following retreating glaciers at the end of the Ice Age
(b) That the Celtic languages originated not in central Europe but in Southern France and spread to the Western half of Britain via the Atlantic coast during the late Neolithic
(c) that the Germanic roots of the English population are much older than the Anglo-Saxon invasion and instead reflect earlier waves of migrations from Scandinavia and Frisia.
(d) That the Iron Age population of lowland Britain probably spoke Germanic - Belgic languages rather than Celtic.
(f) That the English are not really Anglo-Saxon at all, as the AS 'invasion' only contributed around 5% to the modern English gene pool, even less than the Vikings. In fact most English people have around 70% of their genetic inheritance from pre-historic Celts!

His theories of the spread of the Celtic languages chime nicely with cunliffe's theory of the spread of culture along the Atlantic facade throughout prehistory. In all his conclusions are persuasive, based on detailed analysis of the spread of gene types from different regions over history. By necessity this becomes quite technical but is helped by plentiful maps charting the dispersal of various gene types. However, his theory that the Germanic languages were spoken in Britain before the Romans arrived is not backed up by any real evidence. Why are there no Roman inscriptions or history citing names of Norse gods, or Germanic personal or tribal names recorded in Roman Britain?

Even so this book is set to become a milestone on our understanding of the formation of the British identity. He manages to show that the Celts were indeed a historical reality and not a modern fiction whilst raising serious questions about the nature of Englishness: what does it mean to be 'English' when only about 30% of our male genetic ancestry originates from N German/Norse regions and the rest is of Iberian origin?
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on 14 November 2007
I'll preface this review by saying I'm not sure I buy everything Oppenheimer is selling, but he presents a good case for the deeper genetic and to an extent, linguistic, origins of the British and (most contentiously) the English. If nothing else, he forces you to question what you already know or think you know.

The most contentious part of the arguments is that the English are not a simple product of Anglo-Saxon invasions of the dark ages, but that the ancestors of the English (both genetically and linguistically) were already here - before the Romans and indeed, before the "Celts". Now, that turns over everything we learned in school, and definitely will cause a few tops to blow amongst the academic establishment who so despise new theories (especially those that conflict with their own).

I appreciate his extensive use of maps and charts to indicate gene flow and population movements and other concepts that are more easily illustrated using such methods than by text alone.

My only gripe about the book is Oppenheimer needs a better editor as a few of the illustrations and maps are not as clear as they should be or lack certain information.
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