Saxons, Vikings, and Celts

By Bryan Sykes

June 23rd, 2009

The author has been running a research program to obtain detailed genetic maps of the British Isles. He does this by obtaining DNA samples from thousands of people whose ancestors appear to have been living in that area for a long time. His assumption is that these people's ancestors have remained in that area since earliest times. For an American like me, who has resided in eight different locations in five states, the notion seems absurd, but Britain is not America and people really do seem to stay close to their ancestral homes.

Particularly interesting is the fact that Sykes can trace separate lineages for males and females. Female lineage can be traced through mitochondrial DNA; male lineage can be traced through the Y-chromosome. By careful analysis, Sykes has been able to trace the lineages back to earlier sources. His earlier book, Seven Daughters of Eve, presented his evidence showing seven mitochondrial female ancestors of all European residents of Britain. He did the same thing for males and discovered nine sources. He refers to the descendents of each of the ancesters as a clan, and is able to trace just how prevalent each clan is in various locations.

From all this he comes to some remarkable conclusions. The most striking is that the matrilineal basis of almost all British residents is Celtic. In other words, the Celts were the first ones to populate the British Isles in great numbers; everybody who came after that sent mostly males, who mated with resident Celtic females. The patrilineal lines are from all over: Norwegian, Saxon, a bit of Norman (but not much) and a trace of Roman.

What is more, the DNA evidence supports the ancient Irish legends regarding their origins. I had always thought that the British Isles were populated by pre-Celtic peoples who were overrun by invading Celts from central Europe. But instead, it now appears that the British Isles were originally populated by Celts from Spain -- just as the Irish legends claim. This makes sense if you extend the time horizon of colonization further back in time. Remember, the British Isles were buried in ice during the Ice Ages; as the climate warmed, the habitable zone for humans would have moved north, permitting colonization from southern peoples edging northward. It appears that Ireland became habitable before England did, in which case colonizers coming by ship from Spain would have a better opening than people coming from central Europe. Of course, this would have taken place around 7,000 BCE, long before the time horizon we think of for the Celtic peoples, but these could have been the precursors of the Celtic peoples, and the linguistic evidence certainly supports this possibility. Moreover, the difference between p-Celtic and q-Celtic might well be explained by an early Celtic colonization starting from Ireland and moving eastward, encountering a later Celtic colonization from central Europe starting in Essex and moving westward.

Another surprise comes from the discovery that the Picts were Celtic as well. We had long suspected that this ancient people arrived in Britain before the Celts, but the DNA evidence shows little difference between the Scottish and the Irish. True, Scotland was invaded in the sixth century by Irish Gaels called the Scotti, but they set up in western Scotland. Even in eastern Scotland the DNA remains similar to the Irish DNA. Thus, the Celtic colonization of Scotland apparently took place long before the Romans arrived.

BTW, the pattern of female DNA representing aboriginal populations and male DNA representing invading populations appears to be a universal phenomenon. In Mexico, most female DNA is Native American and most male DNA is European. The invaders come, kill the men, and take the women for themselves. And they seldom bring their own women with them. The big exception to this is in the northern islands such as Orkney. There, the female DNA has a strong Norse component. This suggests that the Norse came as colonizers, not invaders.

This is definitely not a scholarly book. The writing style is light, with plenty of personal asides and anecdotes. It's a good book for the general public.