Genetics versus Archaeology

2 Mar 2017

At ... we have a hands on collision between archaeologists and historians with geneticists. One reason this has occurred is that both sides work in isolation from each other. There is a lot of archaeological evidence for a Viking invasion in the 9th and 10th centuries AD but this is not necessarily what geneticists have found. We even had Viking kings - and large parts of England were once part of Greater Denmark. Not only that but the Normans were the descendants of Vikings that ruled over part of France ... and so on. Disagreement has arisen because geneticists like to present their findings as unique science and unquestionable. Archaeology, on the other hand, is subjective - and depends on chance finds. However, at the same time everybody knows, archaeologist as well as Joe Public, that geneticists work in the main from small samples of human remains and may not reflect the full picture. Archaeologists and historians have a long pedigree of trial and error and they have changed their opinions a lot over the years. However, they still have some ideas difficult to dislodge. They also have a lot of experience and have accumulated a lot of information over time that cannot be brushed aside. Geneticists are the new kids on the block. Reading this piece you get the impression the geneticists may have reached crunch point - written history is colliding with genes. There are some ambiguities in genetics I would have thought as there is not a lot of difference between Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries than Anglo Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Jutes, for example, hail from Jutland, and the Angles from Angeln, while the Beowulf Poem is clearly set in Denmark and Frisia. How do you tell the difference when such a small amount of time occurs between the two influxes? These groups primarily established themselves as elites. They did not bring over boat loads of peasants otherwise there would have been nobody to till the fields in Denmark and Schleswig etc. They relied on indigenous peasant labour to make the new kingdoms, or extended kingdoms, to work and prosper. The big question is how much influence did the Vikings have on the gene pool of what is now England (and the same must apply to Ireland, Wales and Scotland etc). This is summed up succinctly by Rasmus Nielson of Oxford University. DNA research provides a new window on the past - representing a different focus on history. Archaeology often tells us about the rich in society (digging up the treasures of the elite) but genetic research does not distinguish between rich and poor, or man and master. That appears to sum it up. Archaeologists like gold torques and wheel thrown pottery, and get excited by rich grave goods deposited in the graves of Anglo Saxon and Viking warriors (and their wives and daughters). Genetics brings the debate back to basics - away from coin hoards and burial mounds. The Anglo Saxon invaders were little different to the Vikings - small in number but powerful politically. They carved out kingdoms by force of arms - but the peasants were part of the booty. An excess could be sold off as slaves and the others were necessary to keep the land in good fettle.

Having said that I have often wondered how genetics distinguishes between the later invaders and the Mesolithic inhabitants of Britain and northern Europe in general. They had a similar culture and presumably a similar gene pool. Can invaders be distinguished enough to pick out Anglo Saxons from indigenous inhabitants. Presumably they can - but there might be a margin of error. Not only that, how do they determine between Anglo Saxon and Viking as only a couple of hundred years separate the two influxes. Both sides appear to have a point. If you then add in migrations that occurred in the Bronze and Iron ages from the same general near continent regions one must be faced by complexity. For example, a recent television programme fronted by Alice Roberts featured Must Farm in the Fenlands. A Late Bronze Age settlement was burnt and collapsed into a river channel, leading to preservation of timbers and household items, charred and uncharred. It was pointed out there were similarities with settlements on the continent and it was a real possibility that the site was torched by unfriendly natives. Migration from the near continent appears to have been a common element in history - going back to the arrival of the first farmers. There must have been numerous unrecorded incursions and settlement in marginal areas such as the fens. The degree of genetic admixture will no doubt become clearer the more sampling of skeletal material that takes place - and that is just a matter of time and inclination. At the moment genetics is telling us the peasant ancestry has not changed a great deal - even going back to the end of the Ice Age. Successive layers of invasion and conquest have altered the genes of the ruling classes. It's a fascinating subject and my sympathy is with both sides in this research. However, two major influxes of genes are more obvious than others. One is the arrival of early farmers and the second is with the arrival in Europe of people with an ancestry on the steppe zone. The latter appear to have been mainly male which would fit in with a horse riding warrior class who, like the Vikings and Anglo Saxons, established themselves as a ruling elite (intermarrying with the locals in order to inherit legitimate change of rulership). The fact that Mesolithic genes have also persisted, presumably amongst the lower classes, is the most surprising factor of genetic research. More will be revealed in the course of time.