Who Are the British? DNA Research Reveals the Truth
Who are the British?
Whether you are of British descent or not, you probably have some idea who the natives of the British Isles are. Before you read any of this article, please add your input to the two polls below. Do not read the article first, as this will invalidate the results of the polls.
Which people do the British share most genes with?
Which people do the Irish share most genes with?
I hope you found that easy. "The British Isles", by the way, is a geographical, not a political term. That's why Ireland is included. Everyone has a good idea about who the English and the Irish are. Or do they?
Who are the British really?
Let's start with the English. Everyone knows the English are Anglo-Saxons. We even call people of English descent WASP's - white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They are Anglo-Saxons because the warlike tribes of Angles, Saxons and others invaded England in the 5th Century and settled there, driving out the original Celtic peoples, who fled to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany. We Brits were all taught this in school, so it must be right.
Only it isn't. The new science of DNA analysis has produced some surprising results that blow this story out of the water. English DNA was compared to DNA samples taken from areas of Northern Europe where the Anglo-Saxon tribes were known to have settled and flourished, such as Freisland in the Netherlands. For each gender a genetic marker was identified that designated those descended from those tribes, on the Y chromosome for males and within mitochondrial DNA for the female. Results showed that only 5% of English men had the Anglo-Saxon marker, while no English women possessed it at all.
The conclusion we have to come to is that relatively small numbers of Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain and most, if not all of them, were male.
This seems reasonable. There was no mass public transportation system in the 5th Century, so the idea that a population of Anglo-Saxons numerous enough to take over the whole country came swarming across the North Sea isn't really feasible, even over a long period of time. The Vikings, who came from the 7th to the 11th Century, were from the same stock and sailed in longboats that held at most 30-40 men. They did manage to establish thriving settlements in many places, including the Shetland Islands and Orkney, and even to bring their women with them. They did not, however, occupy the whole country.
It's really only in recent centuries that we have had the methods of transportation which enabled true colonization to take place. Earlier invaders formed a ruling elite. The Anglo-Saxons did this as the Romans had before them and the Normans were to do later. They obviously had an enormous cultural influence - but history has credited them with a far greater genetic influence than they actually had.
If the English aren't Anglo-Saxons, who are they?
According to geneticists Bryan Sykes and Stephen Oppenheimer, all the peoples of the British Isles, which includes the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English, share much of the same DNA. This DNA arrived with hunter-gatherer tribes who moved into the area from 15,000 to 6,500 years ago from the area of northern Spain. The Welsh and western English share 80% of their DNA with the Spanish Basques, the Irish as much as 88%. People from southern and eastern England, which was subject to later incursions from Europe, still share about 65% of their DNA with the Basques.
Nomadic tribes moved to the area because it was at that time on the western edge of Europe. It was common practice for migrating tribes to follow the coast, particularly during the Ice Age, when the ocean would be a more reliable source of food than the frozen land. Britain was not an island at that time; it was attached to the European mainland by a land bridge now referred to as Doggerland. It was not until around 6,500 years ago, with the melting of the glaciers, that sea levels rose, creating the British Isles.
This transformation of Britain and Ireland into islands did for the people what the drifting of the Australasian continent did for marsupials: it put their DNA in a time capsule. The tribes of Europe continued to wander, but they did not often wander across the sea. Those who did so set up home in southern and eastern England, as these areas were easiest to reach. However, until very recent times when immigration began to rise meteorically, the majority of Brits retained mainly the DNA of their Spanish Basque ancestry. The Irish, in fact, had the fewest foreign additions to their DNA since they were furthest away from mainland Europe and on the other side of not one, but two, stretches of water. Even today their DNA is closest to their hunter-gatherer forebears.
Why do we speak English?
If only 5% of English DNA came from Anglo-Saxons, why do the British speak English?
When the Romans made their conquest of Britain in the first Century B.C. they spread their domain over the whole of what is now England and Wales, but the people showed no inclination to start speaking Latin; after 1066 when the French-speaking Normans arrived, Britons didn't generally take up speaking French. So are we to believe that a population descended from Basques would entirely drop their own language and start copying their Anglo-Saxon masters in speaking English?
The story always told was that Britain was originally populated by Celts. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the 5th Century A.D. they simply killed the Celts or drove them out. They then took over England entirely and spoke their own language. The DNA evidence refutes this. The original population didn't leave.
What does appear to be the case, however, is that Germanic languages were introduced to Britain at a much earlier date than the 5th Century. Julius Caesar, sent to survey Britain in 54BC, wrote in his report to Rome that Belgae tribes had settled in the southern part of England, displacing the native population. The Belgae, who later gave their name to Belgium, were Germanic tribes who originated in the area of northern Gaul (present day France and Belgium). Caesar added that the language spoken by the Britons was similar to the languages he had heard spoken in Gaul.
Moreover, populations that formerly spoke Celtic languages tend to have a rich legacy of Celtic symbols and vocabulary, particularly place names. English contains a mere sprinkling of Celtic words and England has no Celtic place names. This makes it unlikely that the population of England ever spoke a Celtic language.
Were the Basques not Celts?
The Basque language is not Celtic; in fact, it is not an Indo-European language at all. While Celtic languages did arrive or evolve in Wales, Scotland and Ireland and parts of England, they were not introduced by the Basques. Invasion by Celtic tribes may be a factor, but it is impossible to detect a genetic trail. There is no genetic marker which distinguishes a Celtic race from any other and the term "Celtic" is now regarded as a cultural, rather than an ethnic, designation.
The early development of the English language remains lost in the mists of time, but if the new theory is correct, it seems that when the Anglo-Saxons landed in Norfolk in 450 AD, they may have been able to ask the locals for directions and been understood. The fact that they already spoke similar languages may explain the vast influence the Anglo-Saxons were able to have on the native culture of England, far exceeding that of the Romans or of the later Norman invaders. (The Normans had a huge influence on the British government, legal system and the monarchy, and of course the English language, which received almost its entire latinate vocabulary from them. Yet they were not so influential on the everyday life of the people.)
Who'd be a WASP?
If you've always thought of yourself as a WASP and you've read this far, you are by now probably seriously confused. You may be undergoing something of an identity crisis.
If you are an American whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, you may have a better chance than most of genuinely being WASP-ish. Many of the emigrating Puritans originated in the county of Norfolk. This was where the Angles and Vikings arrived, and men from Norfolk have the Anglo-Saxon DNA marker 15%, rather than 5% of the time. Conversely, if your forefathers came from the west of England, you have even less than 5% chance of having Anglo-Saxon ancestors.
DNA research continues and conclusions are contentious: some geneticists have recently claimed that the genetic haplotype identified by both Sykes and Oppenheimer as being Basque came originally from the Balkans and/or the Middle East rather than the Iberian peninsula. Further research may lead to a consensus. What remains certain is that the basis of British and Irish DNA was established long before any Celts, Anglo-Saxons or Vikings arrived on the scene.
Time may be running out for investigating the western world's pre-historic racial heritage. World travel is now so easy and immigration to western countries so high that it is quickly becoming extremely difficult to find people who are descended from a single race. When we do, the results of genetic investigations can turn our preconceived notions upside down.
What is noteworthy about this DNA evidence is that it exposes our propensity for accepting myths as fact. There must be many more accepted ideas surrounding race and culture which were merely invented by people who had political motives or simply liked the idea. The lesson we can learn is always to question our assumptions. So who do you think you are?