Sykes, Bryan, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, Norton: New York, 2006. 306 pp. [published as The Blood of the Isles in the UK]
Oxford University professor of human genetics, Bryan Sykes, follows up his best-selling popular books on recent European DNA studies with a book specifically about the “Isles” — England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Casting a wide but useful net, he provides a grounding not only in the geography, climate history and human prehistory of the two islands … but describes the mythology about, and early scientific investigations into, the origins of the people there. These are far from just academic preoccupations. In past centuries, English kings made their claims for sovereignty based on tales of Trojan settlers and Arthurian prowess. Every medieval commentary and discovery was followed with intense royal interest. Well into the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rights of kings were linked to ancient origins. Not surprisingly, later Victorian efforts at phrenological and morphological interpretation of the island’s peoples (the shape of their skulls and features of their bodies) comes in for some hard knocks in this book. But Sykes gives those pioneer scientists full points for effort, thoroughness, and a methodical approach. Their efforts might now be dashed upon the rocks of genetic information, but their tables, charts, line drawings and descriptions of hair colour, skin tone, and body shape across the British Isles reflect the sincere interest of generations past, attempting to answer the question “who are we?”. In many ways, Professor Sykes continues their efforts.
Since tens of millions of people outside the UK and Ireland claim the islands as ancestral homes, this book should be a useful addition to libraries around the world. Every genealogist in the English-speaking world will want to be familiar with the subject matter if not actually own a copy. As someone who graduated with a master’s degree in palaeo-environmental studies, there were many more pages of natural history in “Saxons, Vikings, and Celts” (SVC) than I expected. “Enough already,” I thought to myself on occasion. “Where’s the genetics?” But thinking of the task which Sykes sets himself … to set the stage for the genetic information of some 100+ million people … I can fully understand why he made the extra effort to describe the full context for human existence in the isles. Without understanding the role of glaciers, land bridges, forestation, invasions, and the distinction between Palaeolithic – Mesolithic – Neolithic, the genetic information he’s discovered floats above the human reality. It’s no more informative than breeding records of anonymous domestic animals.
Fair warning then that much of SVC’s bulk comes from providing the context for how humans lived in Great Britain and Ireland through the millenia, plus past narratives they cobbled together about their origins and superiority to neighbours near and far.
Those familiar with Sykes’ earlier books will find much that is added and elaborated from his work on the female line of descent in Europe (the mitochondrial DNA passed down by our mother, from her mother, ad infinitum). In the The Seven Daughters of Eve, he assigned female names (e.g. Ursula, Helena, Jasmine) to particular genetic markers as an easier way for the reader to keep track of the geography and prehistory associated with each lineage. Readers will need to consult Wikipedia for a cross-reference to the nomenclature that scientists actually use for these markers. The results of scientific study of maternal bloodlines indicates that the European population has been largely stable, and heterogeneous, and dominated by seven female lineages for tens of thousands of years.
In starting the Oxford Genetic Atlas Project soon after the millennium, he and his colleagues began to also collect male (or Y-chromosome) lineage information. This time, he discovered five male genetic lineages which dominate both the European and island population. Again, he provides human names to these markers, and again, readers will need to head to Wikipedia to translate his names into the specific scientific terms for each marker. The results of his research on male lineages re-emphasizes the antiquity of the genetic makeup of Great Britain and Ireland. While two great streams of peoples apparently came to the islands from the south (apparently along the coast from Spain) and from the east (west along the south shore of the Baltic), they share a great deal genetically with the other peoples of western Europe.
Sykes began his research at a time when DNA samples could only be gathered from blood. As a result, a certain amount of his story involves the diplomacy necessary to deal with blood donation services, schools, and civilian donors through the years. More recently, a simple swab from the inside of a person’s cheek is all that’s necessary for DNA genotyping. Gone are the elaborate refrigeration, shipping, and handling methods for blood samples. As a result, through a commercial entity separate from the university (Oxford Ancestors Ltd.), Sykes now provides answers to finer-grained questions about individual DNA variations. Those descended from the “seven mothers and five fathers” nonetheless share near-identical DNA with a much smaller group of people. It’s those people, often sharing surname or point-of-origin, who are often of interest to the genealogist. Sykes can help determine if you’re a “northern Smith” or a “southern Smith,” for example.
In summary, after statistical analysis of roughly 50,000 DNA samples in Great Britain and Ireland, Sykes discovered deep continuity of the maternal lines in the isles, undisrupted by the Romans, Celts, Picts, and Saxons we know from written or archaeological history. And there’s a great deal more stability in paternal genetics than scientists had assumed. They can at least make the case for “family trees” in existence for many thousands of years, which (through tracking their mutation rates from east to west) ended up in Great Britain after the end of the last Ice Age (roughly 12,000 years ago) and have been there ever since. Again, the genetic “foundation” of the isles appears to be widely shared with other parts of Europe … and seems to have been in place roughly by 10,000 years ago … as the glaciers retreated from the northern parts of the continent.
A dramatic illustration of the depth of the continuity is the match of mitochondrial DNA genetic material of a 9,000 year old skeleton (Cheddar Man) with a school teacher who lives near where the skeleton was excavated.
The peoples of Great Britain and Ireland, like most of their cousins in Scandinavia, Spain, and the nearby continent, are descended largely from Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers. The subsequent changes in the material culture … the use of metals and agriculture … were therefore adopted by local people. Ideas moved. People less so. This is contrary to what had been assumed, or idealized, through most of the last few centuries of European historical speculation.
The implications for modern history and politics are substantial. The DNA of modern occupants clearly shows that most of them are descended from folk long on the islands (especially on the maternal side) and much of the ebb and flow of paternal lines of DNA reflects the mere shifting of relative percentages in the population. There was no wholesale replacement. More a patchwork quilt that roughly parallels our understanding of wider European genetic history. There’s little in the way of a specifically Roman influence, just a few possible Mediterranean or African markers. Barely a statistical blip. The Normans come and go almost unseen in the genetic record (largely because they were essentially transplanted Vikings already widely represented in the British and Irish gene pool). Where dramatic imports of genetic lines is noticeable (the so-called “Genghis Khan effect” seen in Viking advances in the north or Irish migrations during war with the Picts of Scotland), it was moderated by the fact that the Scandinavians and Irish themselves shared many genetic families with the occupants of the British Isles. And in the case of the northern islands (Shetlands, Orkneys), it’s clear that conquest was by Viking families as much by individual bloodthirsty warriors. Uniformity of genetic stock seems largely absent everywhere in Europe, within the scope of the “super-families” identified by Sykes and his professional colleagues.
SVC is a book written for the general public, and is certainly within the reach of motivated high school students. Even a keen middle school student might find pieces of history and geography that would inspire them. Strangely, for such a solid summary of natural and cultural history, there is no bibliography and mighty few footnotes. This isn’t very reassuring, since in the few areas he touched upon where I’ve done my own reading of the academic literature, his summaries are a bit dated and perhaps more generalized than necessary. Nonetheless, it’s a fine beginning to one’s education.
As mentioned above, anyone interested in the genealogy of Great Britain and Ireland should consider this book their primer on the history and geography of the isles, and the biological and mathematical facts underlying DNA historical reconstruction. No doubt, as science continues to refine its analytical techniques, we’ll see smaller and smaller variations in DNA giving us finer and finer insight into the movement of peoples in western Europe. As data sets grow and computation tools appear, the variations, and sub-sub-variations, of Sykes’ dominant lineages will no doubt provide many more fascinating insights into history and prehistory.
It will be interesting to see if further elaborations of the genetic data will continue to support Sykes’ hypothesis about the predominantly Palaeolithic origins of most of Britain and Ireland’s inhabitants.
What about the Anglosphere argument?
If the author’s research holds up in coming years, this book is a clear contribution to the argument that Anglo-Saxon influences on English individualism were cultural, not racial. The Anglo-Saxons came to England with genetic inheritances that were diverse and widely shared with the island peoples they displaced. Their influence in the ultimate genetic ratios of modern Britons and Irish citizens is therefore hard to discern. Sykes does much to make the case that the Celts and Picts were also largely indistinguishable at the genetic level … and virtually identical in female lineages. His modern distribution maps certainly show variation from east to west, from south to north, and between Britain and Ireland. Yet his overall story is one of amazing continuity.
Table of Contents
1. Twelve Thousand Years of Solitude 
2. Who Do We Think We Are? 
3. The Resurgent Celts 
4. The Skull Snatchers 
5. The Blood Bankers 
6. The Silent Messengers 
7. The Nature of the Evidence 
8. Ireland 
9. The DNA of Ireland 
10. Scotland 
11. The Picts 
12. The DNA of Scotland 
13. Wales 
14. The DNA of Wales 
15. England 
16. Saxons, Danes, Vikings, and Normans 
17. The DNA of England 
18. The Blood of the Isles