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Race and DNA

The original text of this article was given to the webmaster.  Attempts have been made to source the contents, but none could be found.  The webmaster would be pleased to hear from the originator that it is acceptable to reproduce this very interesting text on this website. There seems to be a slightly England bias but this does not detract from the content. A few additions have been made to assist International readers, and more can be added if readers desire this.

(W/T) Races and DNA.

Are we descended from Vikings, Saxons, Romans or Celts?  For centuries, many believed our physical features revealed our origins.  But are the British simply a breed apart?  


  • The Celts probably descended from Basque people, who recolonised Britain after the last Ice Age.

  • The Welsh and Irish are their closest modern relatives.

  • The Anglo-Saxon invasion left a genetic imprint across middle England.

  • The Vikings made their impact in East Anglia, York, northeast Scotland, and the Orkney Islands.

  • Genetic contributions of the Normans and Romans are not thought to be highly significant.


You'd think they were breeds of sheep. The Old Black Breed, The Sussex, The Anglian, The Bronze Age Cumberland, The Neolithic Devon, The Teutonic‑Black Breed Cross, The Inishmaan, The Brunet Welsh.  Some are dark and woolly; others fair and shorn.  Some are plump: some wiry.  All gaze into some indefinable middle distance with the faraway, disinterested look of contented grazers.  

All are dead now ‑ dead beyond even forgetting, for nobody alive is old enough to remember them.  And yet, throughout the hills and valleys of Britain, their DNA lingers on.  What they inherited from their fathers and mothers, so they passed on to their sons and daughters - a specific angle of brow, a roundness of head, a particular weight and stature, a length of nose. 

In 1900, the year this gallery of British human breeds appeared in William Z. Ripley's anthropological field guide, ‘The Races of Europe’, it was all a matter of pedigree.  "The aristocracy," said Ripley, then an assistant professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "everywhere tends towards the blond and tall type, as we should expect."  The old British types, by contrast, tended to "irregularity and ruggedness.  The mouth is large, the upper lip broad, the cheekbones prominent."  Noses, too, were generally sizable and “not often very delicately formed."  A Victorian cleric, Bishop Whately, in his ‘Notes on Noses’, bluntly classified the British nasal standard as the "anti-cogitative" type, as if the size of the snout were in inverse proportion to its owner's capacity to think.  Most persistent of all, said Ripley, were the overhanging pent-house brows". 

In terms of human evolution, where archaeologists calculate in millions of years and the last Ice Age counts as recent, 1900 is barely a heartbeat away.  The men and women whose pictures appear on Ripley's pages are not Neanderthals: they are the grandparents of our grandparents, who lived to see the age of photography, powered flight and the internal combustion engine.  Genetically they are us, the pent-house brows, anti-cogitative noses and fleshy lips the distinguishing marks in our own physiognomical vocabulary.  So what might they be telling us? 

Ripley believed he could read into flesh, bristle and bone everything from our ancient origins to our capacity for work, honesty and self-restraint.  Few if any pent-house brows were raised at what he said, for his views were securely anchored in the Victorian mainstream.  With the trumpet blast of Darwin's ‘The Origin of Species’ still ringing in their ears, bewhiskered physicians, learned doctors and reverend gentlemen toured the countryside measuring, classifying and, in latter years, photographing everything they saw.  Nothing lived that was not labelled, and this applied as much to dukes and swineherds as it did to orchids and finches.  With callipers, rulers and weights, the inquiring gentlemen categorised examples of Homo sapiens with a zeal that stopped only just short of the specimen jar.  They called their science "anthropometry", and rose to the pinnacle of academic respectability.  The august British Association for the Advancement of Science had its own Anthropometric Committee, whose paper of 1883, "defining the facial characteristics of the races and principal crosses in the British Isles", was of particular assistance to William, Z. Ripley. 

There was a torrent of data.  The benchmark was ‘Crania Britannica’, a vast, double-volume survey of ancient British skulls by the professional craniologists Joseph Barnard Davis and John Thurnam.  This had been published in 1856 and dedicated, by her own very liberal permission and favour", to "Her Most Gracious Majesty, Victoria".  In the manner of the time, Davis and Thurnam. combined meticulous record-keeping with wild assertion.  For the people-watchers of the Victorian empire, racial classification was not just a matter of physical differentiation - height, weight, pigmentation, shape and size of skull - but of psychological, intellectual and moral values too.  Hence the belief that lunatics and criminals, like foreigners, could be identified by application of a tape measure to the frontal, parietal and occipital regions of their skulls.  "It would appear," reported one celebrated Victorian anthropologist, "that dark eyes and black or very dark hair are more common among lunatics than among the general population.”  Size mattered.  "Making every allowance that can justly be required for the essential differences of the cerebral structure in diverse races and individuals," said Davis and Thurnam, "it is quite true, in general, that mass of brain is in a direct relation with mental power.  Special cases of small and active brains must be regarded as exceptional. 

Their judgments would have done little to upset Victoria's well-ordered vision of the human ‘ant heap’. This, for example, is Davis and Thurnam's scientific verdict on western Ireland, where "the peculiar character of the natives proclaims their descent from a primeval race": "They are wild, superstitious, vengeful, addicted to extravagant legend, and timidly susceptible to every impression which can arouse their fatalism or their fears.  In sickness, these qualities are brought out in prominent relief, their unreasonable alarm and dread of pain especially...  They are the children of the British populations, incapable of ruling themselves in any high sense, and require a fostering hand to carry on their improvement - of which they stand in perpetual need...  Like all the purer aboriginal races of the islands, they are distinguished for cunning, which at times passes into treachery."  The authors accept that Irish women are modest and chaste, but observe that their role is to serve in "the primeval position of inferiors and servants.  No labour is thought severe for them, whilst their comforts of every kind are of minor importance."  

Compare this with the worthy folk of Cumberland: "an acute, shrewd people, active, industrious, vigorous, enterprising, trustworthy...  Everything about them is clean and respectable, not squalid, mean and paltry.  In all these elements they are most unlike the Celtic races."  Or Westmorland: "Well made and long-limbed."  Or Dumfriesshire and Roxburghshire: "An exceedingly fine race."  Standards decline again Durham, where men are stunted by coal mining and are "devoid of the high animal courage of their adjacent neighbours.”  Norfolk is characterised by “a determined courage which knows no fear… and great perseverance and power of endurance.”  It also has very small feet, and – a mater of particular interest to Davis and Thurnham – a large hat size.  Yorkshire and Lancashire are much like Cumberland. 

And so on, county by county around Victoria’s Britain, sorting the tall, fair Teutonic wheat from the small, dark aboriginal chaff. 

More was to come.  In 1870, Dr John Beddoe, president of the Anthropological Society of London, published his classic ‘On the Stature and Bulk of Man in the British Isles,’ which - with the help of figures sent to him by physicians, surgeons and scientifically minded clergymen around the country ‑ rendered the entire working population into arithmetic.  His "index of nigrescence", much used by Ripley, shows the population generally growing smaller and darker on an axis from northeast to southwest.  He generally notes that fair people are taller than dark ones, and expresses surprise wherever he finds the trend is reversed.  There was, he concluded, "evidence of physical degeneration in Nottingham". 

Davis and Thurnam had reached the same conclusion in 1865: “That most of the central districts of England still retain a mixture of aboriginal British blood is considered to be proved by the prevalence of dark hair and eyes and dark complexions, as well as a more medium stature, in the rural populations.  “For evidence they cite the observations of Professor John Phillips in Leicestershire, Nottingham and Derbyshire.  "He is disposed to attribute it to the Teutonic races not having so entirely displaced the aborigines in these districts.” 

The controversy is not over yet.  A plan by genetic anthropologists at University College London (UCL) to sample the DNA of old Hertfordshire families, can be traced directly back to Beddoe's observation that in the districts of Hertford and Watford, "the relations of colour to stature are curious."  The Victorians may have known nothing of DNA or modern genetic profiling, but they were red-hot on its physical manifestations.  You had red hair, they wanted to know why.  By measurement and placement on the "index of nigrescence” you could know a person’s race.  By knowing his race you knew his character.  By knowing his character you knew his worth. 

All too clearly you can see where this was leading.  Ripley's Bronze Age Cumberland type; his Old British types of Hertfordshire and Cornwall; the blond Anglo-Saxons of Yorkshire, Surrey, Sussex and the Scottish lowlands; the Jutish people of Kent; the Brunet Welsh of Cardiganshire and Montgomeryshire; the Neolithic type of Devon; the Old Black Breed of the Shetlands - all these were pinned to his specimen board with the persuasive but flawed objectivity of pseudo-science.  Physical anthropology, mated with logic, gave birth to eugenics - the theory that humankind, like any other stock, could be improved by selective breeding.  "Positive" traits would be selected and multiplied; "negative" ones eradicated. 

Books on ethnology thereafter were given a new kind of nationalistic spin, with each "race" competing for the loftier branches of the evolutionary tree.  In 1924, L. A. Waddell, in ‘The Phœnician Origins of Britons, Scots and Anglo Saxons’ argued that "civilisation properly so-called began with the "Aryanisation" of Britain around 2800BC, when it was brought here by Phœnicians in the tin, bronze and amber trades.  These great civilisers, he wrote, were Aryans in Speech, Script and Race - tall, fair, broad-browed and long-headed".  Ironically, in the light of what was to come, he dismissed the Germans as "fair round-heads" and not "Aryan" at all. 

Bad soon went to worse.  Germany hit back with Hans F. K. Gnther’s ‘The Racial Elements of European History’, translated into English in 1927.  Gnther identified five European races - Nordic, Mediterranean, Dinaric, Alpine and East Baltic, which, like Ripley, he demonstrates with photographs.  This time, however, the captions take on a more querulous tone, like the notes of a world-weary judge at a dog show:  "Slight Negro strain?”, "Jewish descent?", "Back of the head projects too far", "Flat nose", "Long body, short legs"  And, more admiringly: "Prize-winner in a Swedish beauty contest". 

And then he's off and barking: “If nobility is to receive racial meaning again, this can only come about through the attainment of Nordic racial purity."  He bemoans the "terrible contra-selection of the best blood" caused by the loss of officers on both sides in the first World War, and concludes that England has already descended into a mongrelising pit of miscegenation.  As a result, English skulls were growing shorter and rounder, less Nordic and less capacious.  He quotes a writer called Peters: "The healthy English strain of the time of Dickens is no more.  The old fair Anglo-Saxon population of' ‘Merry England’ that worked on the land, and, were the mainstay of Wellington’s army and Nelson’s ships, no longer exists.  In its stead there is making its way into the industrial towns a small, dark strain, in the midst of which the old aristocracy and the gentry stand out like isolated blond giants."  You can imagine what he had to say about "the Jewish problem”. 

And so, in less than 50 years, the hobby-science of Victorian country vicars brought us to Hitler's master race and the greatest catastrophe of modern human history.  Among the incidental casualties of war was the use of anthropometrics as a study of living populations.  No longer could we talk innocently of "race" and "blood”.  Racial history was not just politically incorrect: it was politically unthinkable.  It was also, for the most part, just plain wrong. 

Hitler, however, could not kill our curiosity.  All the old questions were still there.  Like orphans or adopted children, we would never lose the urge to know our origins.  We just needed a new way of looking.  In the 1970s, thank to the burgeoning science of genetics, we got it. 

The double helix of DNA now enabled scientists to make comparisons across entire populations.  It was not your hair colour or the shape of your skull that told the story: it was your Y-chromosome (if you were a man) or your mitochondrial DNA.  Nobody was denying that people differed - it's exactly what Darwin himself predicted.  “Local isolation will lead to differentiation," says Rosalind Harding, a lecturer in population genetics at Oxford University.  But it is a matter of proportion.  By overestimating the importance of minor physical differences, Ripley and the others came no closer to the truth than creationists who believe the whole of nature sprang fully formed from the pages of Genesis.  Their big mistake was the assumption of "race".  

"A race," says Harding, "is a significant step along the way towards the creation of a new species  “The order of magnitude is the gap between, say, chimpanzees and humans in the instant before their paths divided; not the genetic wafer that separates a Cumbrian shepherd from a Worcestershire chair-bodger.  Harding explains: “Geneticists in the early 1970s found that 85% of the diversity between individuals occurred within the same population group, 7.5% between populations within the same continent, and 7.5% between continents.  "The genes accounting for the differences that so obsessed Victoria's anthropometrists are not the hallmarks of racial purity, she says but "only a tiny subset”.  Most of the genetic differentiation between individuals occurs before the end of the street.  If we were dogs, some of us might be bigger or hardier mongrels than others, but we'd all be mongrels just the same.  "The idea you've got to get away from," says Harding, 'is that there are distinct groups with lines of demarcation around them". 

So: there is no gene for Englishness, Irishness, or Scottishness.  And yet we all came from somewhere and, in a society increasingly disconnected from its roots, we are ever more desperate to find out where.  This means reaching back through the millennia, identifying our earliest likely ancestors and tracking their progress through history.  As it happens, wherever they go, migrants leave a distinct genetic footprint - the Y-chromosomes that are passed down unaltered from father to son across the generations.  By matching these between existing populations, scientists have uncovered a small but vital piece of evidence.  The modern people closest to the ancient Britons, whose tribal lands also included England, are those of Ireland and Wales.  By comparing their Y-chromosomes with others, we can start to make connections.  Mark Thomas, of UCL's Centre for Genetic Anthropology, explains: "When we look at the Y-chromosomes in Wales and Ireland, we find a very close match with the Basques.”  Other genetic evidence, he says, strongly suggests that the Basques are the descendants of the Palolithic inhabitants of Western Europe prior to the arrival of farmers between 9,000 and 6,000 years ago”.  It is reasonable therefore to conclude that the Basques took refuge in the Iberian peninsula when the freeze was at its maximum, then moved northward behind the thaw to become the first people to recolonise Britain after the last Ice Age.  

Did they then survive to become the Romano-British and later be overrun by the Saxons?  Or were they displaced earlier by other, more sophisticated newcomers?'  "We do not know, says Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, whether they were supplanted by later influxes of farmers, and by Bronze and Iron Age peoples, or whether they simply embraced the new technologies as they developed.  This is a matter of fierce debate. 

So too was the nature of the Saxon invasion.  Was it an early example of ethnic crime?  Or were the Saxons more like the Romans and Normans, subjecting local people to foreign rule rather than actually exterminating them?  More pertinently, who got to pass on their genes to the boys and girls of the 21st century?  Once upon a time it was fashionable to think in terms of rabid invaders raping their way into the national bloodline.  Then in the 1960s a milder view prevailed, and it came to be believed that the Saxon "conquest*'owed more to politics than cold steel. 

The DNA evidence is now swinging back to bloody slaughter.  If our chromosomes are telling the truth, something happened in the Dark Ages that resembles ethnic cleansing, and Englishmen owe their Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lips to an event that modern jurists would call a crime against humanity.  Just like the Victorian people-hunters, UCL geneticists took advantage of family doctors’ enthusiasm for scientific inquiry.  This time the volunteers carried not tape measures and notebooks but sterile tubes and swabs, and instead of swamping the UK they spread out in a discrete line across the thickest part of the country, from Norfolk to Anglesey.  To sample ancestral DNA, the doctors took cheek swabs from men who had been born, and whose paternal grandfathers had been born, within 30 kilometres of a selected market town.  For comparison, the UCL team collected samples from Friesland in the Netherlands, part of the Anglo-Saxon homeland, and from Norway, home of the Vikings. 

The results seem to bear only one interpretation.  Across all the breadth of middle England, the Y-chromosomes matched those of Friesland.  But the Welsh were utterly different.  Conclusion: the Saxons advanced from the east across central England but were halted at Offa's Dyke (a historic man-made rough barrier in the area between England an Wales), beyond which the indigenous Britons continued to flourish.  In the English towns, the most striking thing was the sheer scale of Saxon genetic input.  "Our conclusion from the figures," says Mark Thomas, "is that there was between 50% and 100% replacement of indigenous men by migrating Anglo-Saxons."  If true, this was an achievement beyond the blood-lust of even the maddest modern tyrant.  How could it have been achieved? 

Wholesale slaughter sounds the likeliest possibility but it is not the only one.  As Mark Thomas puts it, a relatively small number of newcomers might just have been "reproductively more successful".  They had the power; they had the money.  They would get the girls. 

They were, literally, the stuff of legend.  Whatever happened at the Welsh border - the struggle between patriot and invader, red dragon versus white - is the historical underpinning of Celtic mythology's greatest hero, King Arthur.  However it came about, the Welsh and Irish survived with their Britishness intact, while central England surrendered its wives and daughters to foreign swordsmen.  Or most of it did. 

Anyone familiar with the Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire fens will know that they are a country apart - a billiard-table landscape walled in by flood banks, where desolate villages and farmsteads cling to waterways rather than roads, and where a line of pylons is the only landmark.  Before it was drained, it was a boot-sucking marsh that might have swallowed an entire army as easily as a Venus flytrap swallows a gnat.  Small wonder that the Saxons gave it a miss, and that the ancient Celtic language (i.e. Welsh) was spoken here at least until the 11th century.  Much more startling is the ancient Welsh kingdom of Calchvynydd.  The literal translation is "chalky, woody land" but we know it better now as Hertfordshire.  When John Beddoe's racial inquisitors catalogued it in the 1860s, they noted that the local men were both darker and shorter than their neighbours, with an average height of less than 1.69 metres.  By crude application of physical criteria, this made them brutish, round-headed Celts.  Whatever they were then, they still are now.  Once again, the geneticists of UCL are waiting to turn Victorian racism into politically correct science.  If they are right, the Y-chromosomes of old Hertfordshire families will match those of the Welsh, and Watford Football Club will run out on to the pitch to the tune of ‘Sospan Fach’. 

But it would be a mistake for others to imagine themselves pure-blooded members of some Gnther-style Nordic elite.  In Thomas's view, the concentration of "continental" – i.e., Danish or Anglo-Saxon - genetic types is likely to be highest in central England, lessening towards north and south.  Despite the bloody upheaval in central counties, this does rather dent the white Englishman’s vision of himself as a perfect amalgam of the continent's finest fighting breeds - Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman - with the vanquished Celts banished to their enclaves in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  A belief in fairies would be no wider of the mark.  If you want Viking Y-chromosomes you'll certainly find them in eastern England (especially Norfolk), York, northeast Scotland and the Orkneys.  Nobody has yet studied the genetic imprints of the Romans or Normans, but this is only because they are unlikely to be of great significance.  The Celts, however, are a different matter.  For thousands of years they have been swatted and whacked like fleas in the invaders’ bed - but, like fleas, they can’t be cracked.  A more recent survey by UCL geneticists has compared Y-chromosomes throughout the UK with a type common in the Celtic heartland of central Ireland, where neither Anglo-Saxon nor Viking ever reached. 

The results seem to have startled the researchers as much as they may shock old-Etonian (Eton School taught) stockbrokers in the home counties. (those around London)  "Perhaps the most surprising conclusion," they said, "is the limited continental input in southern England, which appears to be predominantly indigenous and, by some analyses, no more influenced by the continental invaders than is mainland Scotland.  The truth is that the overwhelming majority of southern England - including in particular the pinstriped hordes that daily invade the capital from their privet-hedged fortresses in cul-de-sac and crescent (affluent areas) - can track their earliest male ancestry, to an indigenous Briton.  The golf-swinging, ‘gin-and-Jaguar’ zones of southern suburbia would better be called the London Celt Belt. 

Human genetics is far from simple just because you share a Y-chromosome with some bygone north German, Scandinavian or Irishman, it doesn't mean you are an Anglo-Saxon, a Viking or a Celt.  As Mark Thomas puts it, you'd be more of a Viking if you joined a battle re-enactment society.  Your paternal line may track back over tens of thousands of years to a particular male ancestor; but over the generations, as populations have moved, mingled and settled, it has been infused with material blindly plucked from every shelf in the international gene shop.  Someone has calculated that Genghis Khan now has 16 million living descendants, but you wouldn’t recognise them from any obvious resemblance to a 12th-century Mongol warlord.  The Y-chromosome is a genetic fingerprint, or birthmark, of particular use in determining more recent ancestry.  It will tell you, for example, whether other people bearing the same surname shared the same recent ancestor.  It can prove or disprove paternity, but it says nothing about what you look like, your nationality, within the UK, or what kind of person you are. 

In the deep fog of ancient time, it offers only the most tantalising glimpse.  Controversially, the professor of human genetics at Oxford University, Bryan Sykes, calculated that the entire population of Europe could be traced back to one of seven women alive and breeding before the last Ice Age, whom he characterised in a bestselling book as the ‘Seven Daughters of Eve’.  By testing a customer's mitochondrial DNA, his genetic profiling company, Oxford Ancestors. can determine which of these seven, a thousand or more generations ago, was his or her proto-grandmother.  He also calculates that the majority of people in Britain descend from ‘Five Sons of Adam’.  The dominance of these five, he suggests, means that at some point in each of their lines of descent, a man begat a very large number of children from a very large number of women.  "One way or another" he says, "polygamous men successfully recruited females to their beds."  On the Genghis Khan model, this suggests the most basic exercise of masculine power.  What it means, he says, is "most people will have had a warlord in their ancestry sometime in the past 10,000 years". 

Having accepted Professor Sykes's offer to identify my own Y-chromosome, I find a little disappointingly, that I belong to the commonest of Britain’s five broad Y-chromosome groups, but more encouragingly - that I have only nine exact matches on the scientific databases.  These embrace the USA (one each in Delaware and Massachusetts) but have a bias towards Wales and the English southwest.  Sykes's conclusion is that proto-grandad was of southern European, or possible Ukrainian, origin and performed his biological duty some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.  The evidence is equivocal.  The line might pass through Anglo-Saxon or Dane, but the likeliest possibility, reinforced by the Welsh and West Country associations, is that, yes, I too - like most of the rest of you who are not of Afro-Caribbean or Asian descent - find my earliest traceable ancestry among the Celts.  

'Cymru ani byth', as they ought to say in Hertfordshire!


A correspondent has informed me that "It was published in The Times on Sept. 21, 2002 under the title ‘Facing the Past’ by Richard Girling." and permission to reproduce the text here has been requested.


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This page was updated - 09 December, 2014