16 April 2020

The land of my ancestors

I've sometimes used that phrase to refer to Britain because both of my parents were immigrants from England, and we traveled back there several times when I was a child.  Despite being born in the US, I grew up in a somewhat culturally-mixed household -- tea instead of coffee, more British TV than American, and suchlike -- I even still have a trace of the accent.  So I have a stronger sense of connection than is probably the case for most Americans whose ancestors came from another country several generations ago.

There's another reason, though -- a consciousness of the tremendous depth of time during which my ancestors lived there.

According to the long-accepted traditional version of British history, during the fifth century (after the withdrawal of Roman rule), the part of the island of Britain which is now called "England" was invaded by Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who pushed out or killed off the Celtic population which had been living there during Roman times and before.  These invaders were the ancestors of the modern English people.  According to this version of things, the English have been living on the territory of England for about 1,500 years -- a length of tenure far greater than what most of today's US population can claim.  An American who can trace his ancestry to the Pilgrim settlers of 400 years ago is felt to have primordial roots in this country; but almost any Englishman could say that most of his family has lived in England for nearly four times that long.

It turns out there's more to it than that, though.  That traditional version of British history is wrong.

Recently a research team from Oxford University carried out a genetic survey of the British Isles, taking DNA samples from 10,000 volunteers across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.  For the latter three countries, the results were as expected -- their modern populations are mostly descended from the original people who migrated there around 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.  But in the case of England, the results didn't fit the accepted story of Germanic invaders displacing the natives during the post-Roman chaos.  The DNA of England looks pretty much like the DNA of the rest of the British Isles.  Genetic markers typical of northern Germany (and of Scandinavia) are found in some areas of the eastern half of England, but their limited distribution suggests that even in those areas, the Germanic invaders contributed no more than 10% to 20% of the gene pool of the present population.

The invasion certainly happened, accompanied by considerable brutality, as chroniclers of the time attest.  But there weren't enough Germanic invaders to displace the existing population.  They settled among that population as a ruling minority, and over time their language displaced the existing Celtic languages.  This would explain some of the differences between English grammar and the grammar of most other Germanic languages, differences which in some cases actually reflect the influence of Celtic grammatical features -- a mostly-illiterate population absorbing a new language from similarly-illiterate conquerors tends to learn it imperfectly, and to carry over features of their original language into the way they speak the new one.

DNA doesn't lie.  The English people of today are mostly descended from the population which has been living on that land for twelve thousand years, just as the people of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are.

(In 1903 a 9,000-year-old skeleton was found in a cave in Somerset county in southern England.  Recently, DNA extracted from the skeleton was compared with that of modern residents of a village less than a mile away, identifying one person -- a schoolteacher -- as almost certainly a direct descendant of the ancient man whose skeleton it had been.)

This imparts a terrible irony to the vicious and sometimes murderous racism which the English have displayed toward the Welsh, Scots, and Irish during some periods of history, with nineteenth-century pedants even declaring those Celtic peoples to be inferior races who ought not to be allowed to intermarry with the English.  They were from the same ancestral stock all along.

But to return to my original point, most of my own ancestors have been living in what is now England for 12,000 years, probably largely in the same localities that my parents' families live in.  That's about as long as the ancestors of American Indians have been living in the Americas.

For anyone interested in the subject, the Oxford genetic survey and its results are described in detail in the book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts by Bryan Sykes.  On the peculiarities of the English language and the Celtic origin of some of those features, read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.


Anonymous NickM said...

You seem to be coming close to arguing that ancestry = rights and that, for example, I as an ethnic Brit (of largely Celtic - with a bit of Viking) extraction have more right to be "British" than Muhammed who runs my local corner shop and who's Mum and Dad were Pakistani? Mo speaks with a stronger Mancunian accent than me - I'm a Geordie, he was born in Stockport. Being English is a state of mind, not genes.

16 April, 2020 03:37  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

This is fascinating.
America is so... young? Really.


16 April, 2020 03:59  
Blogger Mary said...

This is very interesting. I wish I could say the same about a feeling of such a long history in one place. I like genealogy and have done some research back to maybe the 1700s. I know I do have Scottish and German ancestry as do any Americans. My paternal grandmother was 100% German..
Anyway...fascinating and now I know why you are so smart...all that good English blood 😊

16 April, 2020 06:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm usually skeptical of claims that certain groups or ethnicities were slaughtered or pushed out. Particularly when the group is not very small, and or the distanced required for removal are significant. Slaughter or removal of a few thousand is possible if your willing to work at it systematically. But moving people, unless they really want to move, is like herding cats. They scatter, hide, wait for the enforcers to go away, and get along with life as they always have.

From the other side, small groups of vikings and such, slaughter and destroying villages is really, really hard, and thirsty, work. Besides ... if you show even a small amount of respect the people will bring out mead and their daughters ... nothing mellows a raging viking like strong mead and pretty girls. Sure, you have to burn down a couple of villages and slaughter peasants, just to show you can, to get their respect, but after that you can do spend some time enjoying the fruits of the land.

Of course, this is how it always has been. If you leave after an invasion you're an invader. If you stay you're a resident. After a time they don't think of you as a foreigner. Afghanistan still has genetic links back to Alexander the Great. Armies seldom forgo sampling the local talent.

And in the larger context, hundreds of thousands of years, we all have our roots in Africa. White folks are the descendants of tribes that went so far north that, because of the heavier use of clothing and greater atmospheric thickness their dark skin wouldn't absorb sufficient UV radiation to create healthy amounts of vitamin-D. Pale skin, a liability in the sunny tropics, allows people with less exposure to weaker sunlight to stay healthy. We are all Africans.

And something like 1% Neanderthal. But that is a tale for another day.

16 April, 2020 06:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: WTF? I never said anything about "rights" in this post at all. You're reacting to stuff that's purely in your own head. I'm certainly not saying that I have fewer rights in the US or am less American because my family's immigrant history is so recent.

16 April, 2020 08:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: It really is a very young country compared to many. I think it's hard sometimes for Americans to understand how deep the sense of identity runs in societies with more ancient roots.

Mary: Thanks! Of course, one of the unusual things that America does is bringing together people from so many different groups. I imagine the Scots and Germans don't intermarry much in their original countries. It just leads to a culture with a very different character.

Yes, good English blood -- than and all the tea.....😊

Anon: You make some good points, and we've always known that settling down as a ruling minority was pretty much what the Vikings did do, at the time of the Danelaw (there are a lot of Scandinavian elements in the English language too). It seems that the earlier Anglo-Saxon invasion was similar, not a massacre and replacement as the writers of that time claimed.

It's notable that in the largest known case where there really was mass annihilation and replacement of a native population by invaders -- the American Indians in what's now the US/Canada/Caribbean and much of the rest of the Americas -- it was facilitated by a wave of diseases to which the natives had no resistance, which killed off most of them and utterly demoralized the survivors. That hasn't been the case with most invasions, where the invaders and their victims originated not so far apart and had a history of exposure -- and inherited resistance -- to the same set of diseases.

16 April, 2020 08:28  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...


16 April, 2020 09:50  
Blogger jenny_o said...

Very interesting. And as you say, DNA doesn't lie. It's brought us so much knowledge in the short time analysis has been possible.

16 April, 2020 10:33  
Blogger jono said...

My parents were also immigrants. My mother was British and my father Norwegian which may have something to do with my more worldly view of things. I also agree with Anonymous that if we go back far enough we are all Africans.

16 April, 2020 11:14  
Blogger Oblio said...

Fascinating info, Ima going to do some additional research like you said, makes me think of the lyrics to Steely Dan's tune 'The Caves of Altamira'. Also too, your observations dovetail nicely with something I wrote about how people of Mexican heritage like me are forced to process the latent anti-Mexican/immigrant stance so many 'Murricans wave like a bloody flag. It's a pervasive, almost unconscious perspective that even people in my family display without a second thought. Thanks for this post!!!!


16 April, 2020 12:01  
Blogger Lady M said...

Have you ever watch the PBS show "Finding Your Roots?" It is a fascinating look at the genealogy of famous people. There are always interesting surprises especially in relation to our preconceived notions of history and race. The genes don't lie!

16 April, 2020 12:15  
Blogger Mike said...

Even though my last name is Czech, 23andme puts the highest percentage of my genes to be from England/Ireland. My mother's side were Irish. My percentage of Neanderthal is 4%. Not at the top, but pretty close.

I found the book I was talking about the other day. It's called 'The Story of English'. It's a companion book to a PBS series. And the series is all on Youtube. https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/story-of-english/

The ISBN number for the book is 0-670-80467-3
Library of Congress CCN 85-41070

16 April, 2020 15:40  
Blogger Mary said...

Lady M...I watch Finding Your Roots all the time. Just wish they did more shows...just a few a season. They are superb.

16 April, 2020 16:00  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I'm sorry I came late to reading this fascinating post.

I met a charming Englishman 2 years ago, and we've been together since. He came to America to attend university in Cambridge, Mass., and after returning to England, decided to make a life here in the states. I'd always been an Anglophile -- a love of their literature and history, language, culture, and sense of humor. And now I share it with a man who was born there.

I've been watching a BBC series about the origin of the English language, and like most places that have been invaded, the language and people are a interesting mixture of Nordic, Danish, French, and the native peoples of the British Isles.

Thanks for this enlightening post.

17 April, 2020 08:10  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

That's interesting. I did some digging into my ancestry a while back and found that some of my ancestors were from Wales on my dads side.

17 April, 2020 14:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: Thanks!

Jenny_o: I suspect DNA will explode a few cherished national myths as time goes on.

Jono: It could be. Those are very "worldly" peoples.

Oblio: Thanks for the link -- great post. Sadly, with Trump, the hatred against Latino people has been fanned hotter than ever.

Lady M: I haven't seen that -- I've heard that some famous people have surprising roots.

Mike: Yes, last names can sometimes be misleading since they reflect only the male line of descent (usually).

I've heard of The Story of English but never read it. If you have it handy, when was that time when English was reduced to just a few hundred speakers? I'm curious.

Mary: :-)

Shaw: Thanks for the kind words! Maybe I'm biased, but British culture does seem exceptionally rich and accomplished to me.

Mary K: That could stand you in good stead. Based on their history, the Welsh are pretty damn tough.

17 April, 2020 16:08  
Blogger RO said...

This is fascinating and interesting info, and as always I'm learning quite a bit. As I get older, I find that I've been reading and watching more information about history and our pasts. History is important. Sending some socially distant hugs your way! RO

19 April, 2020 07:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RO: Thanks! History is fascinating. I should try to post about it more.

19 April, 2020 08:27  

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