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Stephen Oppenheimer


A genetic detective story

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
In this book Oppenheimer challenges the version of early British history which used to be taught to schoolchildren. (Nowadays, it seems, they hardly learn any history at all, but that is a different question.) According to this version, Britain was inhabited by Celts when the Romans arrived. After the Romans left in the early fifth century there was a bloody invasion by Anglo-Saxons, who slaughtered the Celts and became the English; their Germanic language eventually developed into the English we speak today. Practically the only near-contemporary source for this story is Gildas, a sixth-century cleric, and Oppenheimer thinks his account is hopelessly inaccurate. The Anglo-Saxons, Oppenheimer believes, were not the first English nation, nor did they all arrive at once. They were already in residence in Roman times and the Angles and Saxons were quite distinct peoples.

The book covers a wide span of time, from the repopulation of Britain (not yet an island) after the Last Glacial Maximum 20,000 years ago to the arrival of the Vikings. The most important message from genetics, Oppenheimer concludes, is that three-quarters of British ancestors arrived long before the first farmers. This is particularly true of the inhabitants of the western part of these islands (88% of the Irish, 81% of the Welsh, 79% of the Cornish). Figures for other areas are not much different: 70% for the Scots and 68% for the English.

Oppenheimer does not deny that genetic modification by new arrivals from mainland Europe did occur, or that there are important differences between east and west Britain. In fact, he finds that there was a succession of waves of genetic and cultural influx from Europe, going back to the first farmers and earlier. This included settlers from the Basque lands and elsewhere

A lot of the book is concerned with the origin of the Celts. This is a contentious issue today, and some scholars doubt that the idea of Celtic identity has any real validity. Oppenheimer thinks it has, but he rejects the orthodox view that the Celts came from central Europe in the Iron Age. He thinks they came from south-west Europe—France south of the Seine, Iberia, and Italy, This would mean that 'celtic' language developed along the Atlantic seaboard during the first four millennia of maritime trade in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and was brought to Ireland and Wales by early metal prospectors from 4000 years ago.

Just as the origins of the English people go back further than is usually believed, so too does the origin of the English language. Oppenheimer suggests—controversially, as he concedes—that some form of English may have been spoken in Britain even before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. It may have had important links with Norse, both culturally and linguistically.

Like his earlier book, Eden in the East, this one contains a lot of scholarly citations and discussion of alternative views. This adds to its authority but does not make for easy reading. Fortunately there are summaries at the ends of several of the chapters and there is a useful epilogue which recapitulates the main conclusions, so the casual reader can get an adequate overview of the main themes without having to follow all the twists and turns.

10 December 2012

%T The Origins of the British
%S A genetic detective story
%A Oppenheimer, Stephen
%I Constable
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 13:9781845291581
%P xxi+534
%K anthropology
%O plates, maps

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