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26 March 2016
Ancient history

Stephen Oppenheimer has written at least three very controversial books – and they all involve genetics (and his version of genetic interpretation). In this instance we are having a look at his theory regarding the peopling of Britain and Ireland, and the idea of an Ice Age refuge area in Iberia and SW France (and the possibility that Basques may represent a survival of those people). As it has recently been shown that Ireland was populated in the Mesolithic era by people akin to the Basques we may say that in that respect Oppenheimer has been vindicated by later research and bigger samples of DNA. The big problem Oppenheimer encountered was that his genetic findings contradicted the origin myths of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. He actually said that the basic population of all four regions of the British Isles had a common origin. This appears to have greatly upset the Irish, Scots and Welsh as they cling to a Celtic heritage different from the 'sassenachs' – and the anger provoked by Oppenheimer is on open display at www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/mythsofbritishancestry  … and www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/mythsofbritishancestryrevisited … but what all the comments miss is that Oppenheimer has rubbished in a very dramatic manner the version of English history as outlined by the venerable Bede. In the mainstream version, and beloved by the Celtic speaking western side of the islands, the Anglo Saxons arrived in the post-Roman period in a mass migration movement that shifted the Celtic people already living here, westwards, or in extremist versions of the myth, actually ethnically cleansed the Celtic speakers and wiped them out – in their entirety from eastern, southern, and central England. Of course, this allows soem of our Celtic cousins to don a cloak of victimhood, in which they have wallowed for the last couple of hundred years, seeing the English as the equivalent of the bogey man. As such, a rational discussion in the comments section of the articles did not occur as too many people were incensed. Their cherished ideas were being turned upside down. One is also left with the nagging feeling that if genocide had really occurred English people would have been keen to hide it away – and one suspects that non-English Britons are suspicious that this might be the case. However, Oppenheimer has put paid to all that and shown that even in the most eastern parts of Britain the Mesolithic base populations of the islands is still a strong element in DNA. It is such a strong element in the population that later migrations have been marginal as far as genetic influence is concerned – apart from the arrival of early farmers in around 4500BC. In other words, the post Roman barbarian movements had little effect on the gene pool of England – and neither did the Vikings or the Normans (or even the Romans). At one stage it was thought the Romans had filled the country with foreigners, and all the villas were occupied by Roman citizens rather than Romano British people (with origins in this country rather than abroad). Oppenheimer published a major game changer – but in spite of that it has not dented much of the entrenched belief system surrounding the origin myths of the various constituent parts of the British and Irish population. They are capable of transcending all evidence to the contrary it would seem and the comments at the first link amount to 80 odd pages and if you scan through them you will see that people are resistant to the theory to an extraordinary degree. Is this evidence of an almost autistic resistance to new knowledge – knowledge that contradicts what they were taught in school, college, or university?

That is one thing we might take away from the comments. Whereas some people were prepared to consider the Oppenheimer theory others were clearly unable to get their brains around the idea. They sought to rubbish the new science of genetics without properly understanding it – as if they had an in-built scepticism of the new fangled and recognised that as a new science it was likely there would be changes afoot in the future that might make Oppenheimer's theory redundant. In other words, it is not altogether a bad thing that people do not accept everything scientists might throw at them. If everyone had accepted Global Warming without question the big boys would have won the debate years ago. Hence, it is worth approaching the question of the English language with a bit of scepticism and not fall into the trap of thinking Bede was necessarily right when he said the Anglo Saxons had arrived recently – within a hundred or so years of his life time. What did Bede really mean when he said that?

Bede was a monk living in a monastery at Yarrow in the North East (what was once known as the kingdom of Northumbria). Bede appears to suggest the Angles and Saxons arrived recently – but was he talking about his neck of the woods? It is a fact that the kingdom of Deira, located in North Yorkshire and the chalk wolds, had expanded into the Tyne and Tees area, and had formed Northumbria by absorbing Brittonic Celtic people living there – and had tried to expand deep into what is now southern Scotland (but were repulsed and in doing so helped to create the later boundary between the Scots and the English). It is this conflict between English speakers and the lowland Scots that probably gave rise to the idea of 'sassenach' intrusions into Scots Celtic country, leaving behind a legacy of resistance to further encroachments. However, both English and Brittonic Celtic (as well as Gaelic) are Indo European languages – and somebody must have introduced them into the country – but when? Oppenheimer raises the point that there is little evidence of the Celtic language in the place names of lowland England, a view that has recently been regurgitated by Stephen Yeates in 'Myth and History: ethnicity and politics in the first millennium AD British Isles' published in Oxford by the archaeological publishers, Oxbow Books (2014). Yeates uses Oppenheimer's genetic evidence to bolster his idea that proto English pre-dated the Romans – and was not introduced afterwards by an Anglo Saxon invasion. Neither Yeates or Oppenheimer deny there was a migration event in the post-Roman period – but they deny it was big enough to completely change all the place names of lowland England. They say that was impossible – and anybody that has read up on place name studies will learn that it is not an exact science and that it is quite likely that sometimes what are regarded as Brittonic in origin can just as easily have had an English origin – and vice versa. Yeates also has views on the proto languages of the eastern zone of Scotland, and of Ulster. The Aberdeen region and the NE of Scotland actually face Scandinavia and northern Germany – so it is reasonable to think in terms of people moving across the North Sea throughout history. The language of the Picts is unknown but for reasons of national identity it is assumed the Picts spoke a Celtic tongue – but the defining evidence is lacking. It could just as easily been akin to proto English – or any other kind of equation you might wish to draw. However, if Indo European languages were spread by the early farmers, and in all likelihood they multiplied quicker than the hunter gatherers and taking on board Oppenheimer's evidence they intermarried with each other, we are left with not knowing what the language of the Mesolithic people might have been, and it would be a huge leap of guesswork to say it had anything to do with the Basque language. Basques were also influenced by the early farmers – and possibly this included language. However, it has also been suggested the Celt-Iberians were Basques that had adopted the language of the early farmers and therefore this could also have occurred further north. One has to think that proto-English entered Britain at any point in time after 4500BC – and it may not be necessary to think of Brittonic Celts living in eastern England at all (or at least as recently as the Roman period). What do the Romans say – and Yeates goes into this quite comprehensively. Both Caesar and Tacitus define an area of Britain and France as Belgic speaking. Forget the modern name of Belgium (one of the commenters brought this up but Belgium is a recent political formation). Belgic people inhabited all Gaul as far as the Seine – which is pretty much the post Roman territory of the Franks (and their Saxon compatriots). Belgic has a reasonable etymology in Brittonic as well as Germanic but Yeates claims the latter is the more likely as Belgic people occupied northern Germany, Frisia, and may have differed from other Germans as far as language dialects are concerned. He then draws a line of Belgic occupation of lowland Britain from Southampton to Oxford to North Yorkshire, providing a fair bit of textual evidence to support this proposal. Urien of Rheged, a major figure in the Dark Ages and controlling an area that included southern Scotland and northern England down to North Wales, he suggested, was the post Roman ruler of a major Roman province – which had clearly survived into the 6th century AD. All the Roman provinces, he says, survived in one form or another for centuries after the Roman departure, but in the 8th and 9th centuries the Anglo Saxon speaking kingdoms expanded at the expense of the Brittonic speakers as a result of the wars executed by kings of Mercia and Wessex (and all of them were under pressure from Viking attacks and Scandinavian raiding parties). The suggestion therefore is that a migration into Britain by elite elements (kings and warriors) at the invitation of British kings, as recorded by Gildas and others, led to an escalation of war between the various kingdoms of post-Roman Britain (as described by Gildas). However, Gildas also infers that after this upheaval the foreigners went home – but where was home? Did they go back to Denmark or the Low Countries – or did they stop harrying the Brittonic Celtic west side of the country and remain on the English speaking east side of what is now England. If so we have another reason why Bede might have referred to the Angles and Saxons as newcomers – the elite of the group invited by Vortigern settled down in that part of the country where their speech was not incomprehensible. The ordinary folk tilling the land may have been speaking proto English for centuries prior to the Romans but it was given a new impetus by a group of expansionary tribal leaders with a warrior class that was able to maintain their political control over the mass of the people that retained the genetic imprint of the Mesolithic people from the early Holocene.

It is worth pointing out that in the early Holocene Ireland was still connected to Britain and Britain was still connected to the continent – and the latter persisted until 6200BC. Even then there were islands in the North Sea, some of them disappearing only in the Roman era, or at any point between 6000BC and 1000AD. Island hopping was possible. However, the manner of the coming of the first farmers around 4500BC was so dramatic that a link with the continent may still have existed – and this was later flooded to create the islands. The Dogger Bank is still quite shallow and the Fen country seems to have formed when the land was tilted towards the North Sea basin – for whatever reason. This may have happened as late as 3000BC. Once tilted the Fens became wet and inundated and it has a chequered history of occupation, flooding, and flood relief operations.

From this we can easily visualise that eastern Britain probably had a long association with the near continent and the situation could easily have involved the introduction of a proto-English tongue at any stage between 6000BC and 500AD. English is also close to the Frisian tongue and the Frisians appear to pre-date the arrival of barbarian Germanic tribes in the aftermath of Rome in the 5th and 6th centuries. This means Frisian could go back as a language long before the arrival of the Roman armies in Gaul and the Germanic hinterlands. Having said all that the Celtic and Germanic language and their myths are quite similar. Some people might disagree – seeing differences and magnifying them, but similarities are there all the same. Also, if the Belgic tribes of Gaul and Britain spoke a language akin to later German and Scandinavian languages, how many of so called Celtic myths might really be Germanic in origin?


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