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Chromosomes Sketch New Outline of British History
Article from the NY Times
Thanks to Tam Anderson for sending this to us

Chromosomes Sketch New Outline of British History
May 27, 2003

History books favor stories of conquest, not of continuity, so it is perhaps not surprising that many Englishmen grow up believing they are a fighting mixture of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings and Normans who invaded Britain. The defeated Celts, by this reckoning, left their legacy only in the hinterlands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

A new genetic survey of Y chromosomes throughout the British Isles has revealed a very different story. The Celtic inhabitants of Britain were real survivors. Nowhere were they entirely replaced by the invaders
and they survive in high proportions, often 50 percent or more, throughout the British Isles, according to a study by Dr. Cristian Capelli, Dr. David B. Goldstein and others at University College London.

The study, being reported today in Current Biology, was based on comparing Y chromosomes sampled throughout the British Isles with the invaders' Y chromosomes, as represented by the present-day descendants of the Danes, Vikings (in Norway) and Anglo-Saxons (in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany).

The survey began as a request from the British Broadcasting Corporation to look for genetic signatures of the Vikings in England, later broadened to include the Danes and Anglo-Saxons. Dr. Goldstein said that not enough money was available to study two other invaders, the Romans and the Normans, but that he felt that their demographic contribution had probably been small.

He assumed the original inhabitants of Britain could be represented by men living in Castlerea, in central Ireland, a region not reached by any foreign invader. In a study two years ago Dr. Goldstein and colleagues established that Y chromosomes of Celtic populations were almost identical with those of the Basques.

The Basques live in a mountainous refuge on the French-Spanish border and speak a language wholly unrelated to the Indo-European tongues that swept into Europe some 8,000 years ago, bringing the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period. Hence they have long been regarded as likely remnants of the first modern humans to reach Europe some 30,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic.

By this chain of reasoning, the Celtic-speaking men, since genetically very close to the Basques, must
also be drawn from the original Paleolithic inhabitants of Europe, and probably represent the first modern human inhabitants of Britain who settled the islands some 10,000 years ago, Dr. Goldstein said. These original Britons must later have adopted from Europe both the Celtic culture, evidence of which appears from some 3,000 years ago, and the Celtic language, which is a branch of the Indo-European language family.

Having identified Y chromosomes assumed typical of the original Britons, Dr. Goldstein and his team could assess the demographic impact of the invaders. They found that the Vikings left a heavy genetic imprint in the Orkneys, the islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, which were a center of Viking operations between A.D. 800 and 1200. Many men in York and east England carry Danish Y chromosomes. But surprisingly, there is little sign of Anglo-Saxon heritage in southern England.

"One tends to think of England as Anglo-Saxon," Dr. Goldstein said. "But we show quite clearly there was not complete replacement of existing populations by either Anglo-Saxons or Danes. It looks like the Celts did hold out."

The Y chromosome measures only the activities of men. In a survey reported two years ago, Dr. Goldstein and colleagues examined British mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element inherited through the mother. Surprisingly, the British maternal heritage turned out to be more like that of northern Europeans than British Y chromosomes are.

To explain that finding, it is not necessary to assume Britain was invaded by an army of Amazons, Dr. Goldstein said, or that the Celts had suddenly decided to replace their Celtic wives with women from the Middle East. More probably, since Celts in Britain remained in contact with those in Europe, there were continual exchanges that included women. As in many cultures, the Celtic men stayed put while women moved to their husbands' villages.

So over time, Britain's female population would gradually have become more like that of Northern Europe, Dr. Goldstein suggested.

British historians have generally emphasized the Roman and Anglo-Saxon contributions to English culture at the expense of the Celtic. A recent history of Britain, "The Isles" by Norman Davies, tried to redress the balance. The Celts were ignored, he noted, in part because no documentary histories remain, the Celts having regarded writing as a threat to their oral traditions. Generations of historians saw British history as beginning with Roman invasions of the first century A.D. and indeed identified with
the Romans rather than the defeated Celts.

"So long as classical education and classical prejudices prevailed, educated Englishmen inevitably saw
ancient Britain as an alien land," Dr. Davies writes. The new survey indicates that the genetic contribution of the Celts has been as much underestimated as their historical legacy.

Dr. Davies said in an interview that "traditionally, historians thought in terms of invasions: the Celts took
over the islands, then the Romans, then the Anglo-Saxons."

"It now seems much more likely that the resident population doesn't change as much as thought," he continued. "The people stay put but are reculturalized by some new dominant culture."

The Y chromosome is a useful way of tracking men because it is passed unchanged from father to son, escaping the genetic shuffle between generations that affects the rest of the genome. Also, all men carry the same Y chromosome, a surprising situation derived from the fact that in the ancestral human population some men had no children or only daughters, so that in each generation some Y chromosomes disappeared until only one was left.

This one and only Y has the same sequence of DNA units in every man alive except for the occasional mutation that has cropped up every thousand years or so and is then inherited by all that individuals' descendants. Geneticists can draw up family trees based on these mutations as branching points and then assign specific lineages to historic events or locations, like the entry of Neolithic farmers into Europe.

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