Archive for the ‘Genetics’ Category

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

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A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders, but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of South West France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure, the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and even strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were, until recently, taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord, who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders, who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population, and the small remaining Romano-British elite, were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response, Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later, the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.”

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see, in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their Kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipeout” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish King, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot: an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders, there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time, they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French, which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost? As happened in Frankish Gaul. Or combined in some way with the native language or languages? As happened in post-conquest England.

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is, an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible, and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the ‘Basques’. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice, it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer, these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen, these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested; although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But, if true, his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity; that of our ‘Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English are truly more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that ‘being English’ has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their ‘real’ history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled, in the face of enormous opposition, to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.

Sources:

Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.