Originally published July 2011
(This book is 12 years old now, so it would be interesting to see if the claims have held up as the science had advanced.)
Back in 2006 Oxford University announced the results of a DNA study which challenged the general belief that the early British Celts came across the channel from central Europe. Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics, claimed that the majority of people in the British Isles are actually descended from people who came from the Iberian Peninsula. Sykes is best known for writing several books on the investigation of human history and prehistory through studies of mitochondrial DNA. He is also the founder of Oxford Ancestors, a genealogical DNA testing firm and has been involved in several high profile cases including “Ötzi” the Iceman and people who have claimed
to be descendants of the Romanov royal family.
Around 6,000 years ago people of what would become Spain and Portugal developed ocean-going boats which would have allowed them to sail north to Britain. Professor Sykes’ team spent five years studying the DNA from 10,000 volunteers in Britain and Ireland in a project aimed at mapping their genetic roots. The results suggest there was a small population of perhaps a few thousand very early inhabitants in the British Isles, which was later absorbed by a larger invading Iberian tribe.
Syke’s book Blood of the Isles (2006, published in the United States and Canada as Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland) divided the genetic heritage of the British Isles into several “clans” of descent based upon evidence from mitochondrial DNA, inherited by both sexes only from their mothers, and the Y chromosome, which is inherited by men from their fathers
What he calls the “Oisin” clan appear to be descended from Iberians who migrated to Britain between 4,000 and 5,000 BC and now considered the UK’s indigenous inhabitants. This seems to disprove the theory that later invasions of Saxons and Norsemen exterminated or drove out the native Britons, but rather moved in among them over time and intermarried.
Wodan is the second most common clan identified by Sykes and seem to have arrived from Denmark during Viking invasions in the 9th century.
The Sigurd clan is descended from Viking invaders who settled in the British Isles since AD 793. One of the most common clans in the Shetland Isles, and areas of north and west Scotland.
Eshu. The wave of Oisin immigration was joined by the Eshu clan, which has roots in coastal north Africa.
Re. A second wave of arrivals which came from the Middle East. The Re were farmers who seem to have spread westwards across Europe.
Although the Romans ruled from AD 43 until 410, they left a relatively small genetic footprint. Possibly because for the first 200 years the occupying forces were forbidden from marrying locally.
A criticism of Sykes’ books is that he “dumbs down” the details of the genetic studies for popular consumption. One reviewer wrote that throughout his popular works, Sykes lets “stories, rather than statistics, emerge from the data.” For example, he gives the first woman identified as carrying a particular mDNA haplotype a name as a “clan mother” which puts a “face” on clan origin rather than using a more dispassionate identifying code used in the lab. At times he also traces some of the male Y chromosome DNA lineages to historical kings, and warlords which can become sensationalized -as in his claim about an American who may be directly descended from Genghis Khan. To me this smacks a little of the adverts I used to see from companies that offered to trace your genealogy and implied “You to may be descended from kings!!”
In any case, this new field of “genetic archeology” continues to be revealing interesting tidbits about human migrations.