Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, June, 2007
Not having a scientific bent myself, I was leery of tackling even a modest tome on genetics; however, this thriller hooked me immediately. Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, recently finished a 10-year DNA survey of the genetic structure of Britain and Ireland, and the revelations are let loose in his new book, SAXONS, VIKINGS, AND CELTS: THE GENETIC ROOTS OF BRITAIN AND IRELAND. An exceptional storyteller, the professor defines DNA as “those unseen architects of our bodies, even of our souls.” Never pedantic, the narrative glows as historic figures bray and geological surveys sing, while its momentum builds like a detective story. Sykes never just spews stats across pages; he weaves them into ageless stories of conflict and struggle. Bursting with surprises, the DNA studies track migration over millennia, primarily since the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. As ice receded, humans returned to the Isles over land currently under the North Sea and the English Channel, when the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. As the warm-up progressed, the seas rose, creating the forested Isles. The professor warns, We are now in a warm phase of the long-term glacial cycle, but it will not last forever, and at some as yet unpredictable time in the future we will slide inexorably into another Ice Age. Readers trudge alongside Sykes and his crew from the Oxford Genetic Atlas Project into rural classrooms, blood donor sites, and local festivals in search of DNA. The author states that, It took a lot of mental effort constantly to remind myself that every single one of these strings of letters and numbers represented the journey of an ancestor. What combos of indigenous Britons (Celts), Romans, Scottish Celts and Picts, Irish Celts, Welsh Celts, Vikings, Saxons and Anglo-Normans are stirring within the genetic soup of the Isles today? Matchmaker Sykes introduces myth to scientific methodology when answering these questions. England, the most crowded region in the Isles today, was invaded for a thousand years beginning with the Romans in 43 AD. Asserting that tales of 6th century King Arthur and the ancient Britons are rooted in fact, the professor remarks that, In my research around the world I have more than once found that oral myths are closer to the genetic conclusions than the often ambiguous scientific evidence of archaeology. Arthurian traditions faded when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, and the resulting veneration of Saxon King Alfred provoked centuries of Saxon vs. Celt conflict. This conjuring of a new origin myth peaked in the 19th century with Saxon superiority characterized by a righteous, crusty citizenry towering over low-life Celtic loungers. The Roman Empire’s collapse offered expansion opportunities to barbarian Angles, Saxons and Jutes from the 8th to the 11th centuries, and the DNA of these tough customers remains strong in northeastern England. The bloodlines of William of Normandy, leader of the Norman Invasion in 1066, render him a recycled Viking. Saxon, Dane and Norman are close German/Scandinavian cousins; our tongue is English instead of Celtic, courtesy of these invaders. In addition to donations of Viking, Saxon and Norman blood, a smattering of African and Middle Eastern DNA was found in southern England, shocking individuals with no such known ancestry. These DNA dribbles lead the author to think that these folks may be descended from Roman slaves. History lessons keep surging out of this grand field trip, and they alone are worth the price of the book. The professors instruction on Irish Celts is absorbing. Although the Vikings elbowed their way around Ireland during the 9th century, Celtic genetic dominance is huge. Folks in Leinster show some Anglo-Norman DNA influence, and an intriguing Y-chromosome ancestral study of males with old Gaelic names (Mc, Mac, O) had me in thrall. Research in Scotland turned up Picts, Celts from Ireland, Vikings and Anglo-Normans. Most Scots are genetically similar to the Irish, amazingly so in Argyll. Old camps show Mesolithic people in Scotland at Orkney and the Shetlands 10,000 years ago, and the exception to the genetic closeness with Ireland rests in these areas. Vikings began arriving in the neighborhood during the late 8th century, and Norse place names still dominate the landscape. DNA studies prove that the occupiers brought their own women along, and Viking ancestry stands at 30 to 40 percent today. Sykes describes a wee Scandinavian air in Shetland as an “Undemonstrative, no-nonsense feeling of the place.” I have always wondered about the Picts – Celtic variants or a relic population? The Romans called them Picti (Painted People). This treasure hunt demands reading in one sitting. Similarities with Celts were found, and DNA testifies that Picts flourish among us still, predominately in the Grampian and Tayside regions of Scotland. Wales withstood assaults by Romans, Irish, Saxons, Normans, and English, and it manifests a mighty genetic kinship with Ireland and Scotland, minus the Viking donors. Some individuals living in the remote mountains near Plynlimmon and Tregaron found themselves the focus of much early 20th century research on their odd-shaped heads and Neanderthal-like faces. One extraordinary anecdote concerns two brothers who were widely regarded as Neanderthals and notoriously named the Tregaron Neanderthals. In the 1950s and 1960s, local Welsh teachers, following instructions in their schools history syllabi, took students to interview these welcoming men. The brothers died in the 1980s, and Sykes doubts that they were true Neanderthals, but scientists are still looking out for Neanderthal DNA (none found to date). The professor’s reports confirm that almost everyone in Ireland and Britain has Celtic ancestors who arrived thousands of years ago in flimsy boats over the Atlantic from Celtic Iberia. These findings give credence to the Irish Milesian myth, and Sykes reiterates that,”Deeply held origin myths, however richly embroidered, have a habit of being right.” This book remains unforgettable as Bryan Sykes reminds that,”within each and every one of our cells is something that has witnessed every life we have ever lived.” Laced with fact and folklore from an ancient heritage and rich with lashings of comedy throughout DNA collection capers, SAXONS, VIKINGS, AND CELTS dazzles as blood and bone stand up and testify.

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