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Races and DNA.
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?
OF THE CLANS
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
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?
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
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."
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
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
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.”
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.
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
anthropology, mated with logic, gave birth to eugenics - the theory that
humankind, like any other stock, could be improved by selective
traits would be selected and multiplied; "negative" ones
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
went to worse. Germany hit
back with Hans F. K. Günther’s ‘The Racial Elements of European
History’, translated into English in 1927.
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".
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
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.
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.
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".
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
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
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 Palæolithic 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.
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
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.
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
true, this was an achievement beyond the blood-lust of even the maddest
modern tyrant. How could it
have been achieved?
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.
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.
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’.
it would be a mistake for others to imagine themselves pure-blooded
members of some Günther-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
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)
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.
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".
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.
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