Tuesday, July 18, 2006
One of the topics we've touched on before on this weblog is historical genetics, the use of genetical methods to elucidate historical questions. This technique has been particularly fruitful in exploring the "history" of the British Isles between the withdrawl of the Romans in the early 5th century to the time of the Venerable Bede in the early 8th I place "history" in quotation marks because we really don't know that much about this period. When the Romans left Britain was a land with a Christian and romanized Latinate elite and a predominantly Celtic and pagan rural population. By the 7th century most of the geographic expanse of the British Isles was occupied by Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and principalities (Update: Theresa points out that I am overstating the expanse of Anglo-Saxon Britain, see here). The period between is a historical dead spot, with only a few lights like Gildas to tell us what was going on from the "inside."
In regards to demographics, the past 100 years has seen a periodic swing back and forth as to the nature of the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Prior to World War II it was certainly accepted that the 6th century marked a turning point as masses of Germanic tribesmen swarmed the islands and exterminated the native Britons, with only a few exceptions to the rule such as the battle of Badon Hill, to stem the flow enough so that the Celts could consolidate their redoubts on the extremities. But over the last few generations the scholarly consensus has shifted, and the model has generally been one of elite emulation, where arriving warbands of Anglo-Saxons imposed their language and customs upon the native Britons. This was the story that I read in The Isles, Norman Davies' magisterial historical survey of the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Davies points out that there are references to non-Anglo-Saxons in the early documents when it comes to taxes levied upon townsmen, so it is clear than an indigenous substratum remained. He also alludes to economic historians who suggest that Anglo-Saxon domination was one of slow and gradual cultural hegemony, exploitation and assimilation, as local Celts abandoned their own folkways so as to ascend up the ladder of social status and avoid taxation levied upon the subjegated peoples.
But, there were a priori historical problems with this narrative. Every other Roman province of substantial civilization, and Britain was such, it was not a marchland, retained Latinate speech. The Franks, Lombards and Visigoths took upon the speech of their subject population. The Anglo-Saxons did not, to the extent that very few words of Celtic origin remain in English (the Thames is one). Additionally, in every other post-Roman society conquered by barbarians Christianity did not recede, but held fast and quickly converted the new elites. In the case of the Visigoths or Lombards, they were often heretical Christians, but Christians nonetheless (the fact that they had an institutional high culture religion already probably insulated them from immediate conversion to Catholicism). In what became England Christianity disappeared for nearly a century, and when it returned it was a Roman, not Celtic Christianity, as the latter was by and large perceived as much a religion of foreigners (the Welsh & Gaels) as was the faith brought directly from the south. Separately these issues may have solutions, but taken together they make one suspicious as to how a small Germanic pagan elite both Germanized and paganized a local semi-Latinate and semi-Christian population. Granted, one could make an appeal to the relative sizes of the two groups being different in that on the Continent the Latin speaking Christian contingent was simply too large for the German pagans (or heretics) to absorb.
So enter genetics. Are the English a German "race," or a British one? You can follow the link above for older articles, but there is a new article, to be published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: B, where the author makes makes the following argument:
The term "apartheid" shows up in all the articles about this research, suggesting this is the "hook" that the papers know will draw in readers. The authors seem to suggesting that the invading Germans outbred the Celtic natives, the beauty of compounding growth led to rough parity in 15 generations. In the generality how plausible is this? I find it very plausible, primarily for the two historical reasons above, the replacement of language and religion suggests a very powerful asymmetry between the two groups above and beyound what we understand elsewhere, and it is reasonable that this would be reflected in the genetic record.
But, there are important caveats. The newspapers of course make the Anglo-Saxons to be Germanic eugenicists in the manner depicted in 2004's King Arthur. Previous work in fact suggests that there is a lot of genetic overlap between British Celts (at least ancestral Celts) and English on the mitochondrial DNA. The research above looks at the Y chromosomal lineage, the father's line. It is a common historical pattern for roving bands of warlike males to take native wives, so "apartheid" was not in sense we are imagining as in South Africa, but rather something like what happened in Mexico, where Iberian men marginalized native males, but the scarcity of Iberian females results in mtDNA that is predominantly Amerindian. Though the British case is not as extreme, if you survey some of the previous studies (follow the link as I said above) you'll see what I'm getting at. Additionally, the Y chromosomal lineage doesn't always tell us much (necessarily) about the autosomal genome (most of the genome). If Germanic patrilineages were privileged in the noble system then you should have social selection for those Ys out of proportion to what is found in the rest of the genome (though the spread of German language and the regress of Christianity strongly suggests to me that demographic growth in a more straightforward fashion was part of the dynamic). Finally, one should not neglect regional substructure, earlier studies have shown that East Anglia in particular seems to be strongly skewed toward Germanic Y chromosomes, which stands to reason as this is the proverbial "Saxon Shore."
And one last note, in pre-modern times aristocratic elites could have rather high rates of growth in comparison to the majority of the population . In Victorian England for example during the early years noble women were baby factories while the masses barely reproduced. So one part of equation might simply be that the native Celtic nobility had fled across the border to Wales or over the water to Brittany, and the Celtic peasantry was being constantly replenished with the excess offspring of the Anglo-Saxon nobility.