Day By Day

Sunday, July 24, 2005

British Heritage -- A New Genetic Model

Standard British histories have long emphasized the successive waves of migrants -- Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans that have washed over the island, presumably changing its genetic as well as its political and linguistic makeup. DNA evidence now contradicts that model, suggesting that the migrant populations were not large enough to significantly alter the genetic makeup of the island's population.

National Geographic News reports:

Despite invasions by Saxons, Romans, Vikings, Normans, and others, the genetic makeup of today's white Britons is much the same as it was 12,000 ago, a new book claims.

In The Tribes of Britain, archaeologist David Miles says around 80 percent of the genetic characteristics of most white Britons have been passed down from a few thousand Ice Age hunters.

New evidence for the genetic ancestry of modern Britons comes from analysis of blood groups, oxygen traces in teeth, and DNA samples taken from skeletal remains.

Population estimates based on the size and density of settlements put Britain's population at about 3.5 million by the time Romans invaded in A.D. 43.

Many historians now believe subsequent invaders from mainland Europe had little genetic impact on the British.

The notion that large-scale migrations caused drastic change in early Britain has been widely discredited, according to Simon James, an archaeologist at Leicester University, England.

"The gene pool of the island has changed, but more slowly and far less completely than implied by the old invasion model," James writes in an article for the website BBC History.

What seems to have happened is successive episodes of elite takeovers with little displacement of the general population.

"Probably what we're dealing with is a majority of British people who were dominated politically by a new elite," [a researcher] said. "They were swamped culturally but not genetically."
Read the whole article here.

The significance of this finding is twofold. First it is yet another nail in the coffin of the long-discredited racist migration model that dominated studies of European pre-history a century ago. And secondly, it poses perhaps insurmountable problems for current efforts by prehistorians such as Colin Renfrew to link linguistic changes with population migrations.

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