Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Salon, November 18

Today I'm reading Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, the Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, by Bryan Sykes (published in the U.K. under the title "Blood of the Isles")

This is the first book on the genetic history of the British Isles which utilizes DNA as a main source. The author, Brian Sykes, is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University and is well known for research on the nine thousand year old remains of 'Cheddar Man' and comparisons of Cheddar Man's DNA with that of the modern residents of Somerset. (You'll probably remember the media excitement when it was announced that testing had confirmed a kinship match with a man living in the area today.)

I'm quite interested in this book. The subject matter is fascinating of course and the writing is directed at the layman (me). Sykes tells of his chance introduction to Robert Hedges, an archaeologist at Oxford and their discussion on the possibility of extracting more from ancient bones than simply a carbon dating. Imagine! The first lab in the world to do this kind of testing, Sykes' team has tested Neanderthals, Oetzi (the Iceman of the Alps) and the people of Polynesia.

In 1995 Sykes published a paper disproving the Thor Heyerdahl theory of Polynesian migration by tracing migration routes from an origin in South-east Asia out into the Pacific Ocean. He collected DNA samples from dozens of Pacific islands and extrapolated the progress through the Pacific. Spurred by the success of the Polynesian study, Sykes then sought to investigate the origin of modern Europeans. I'll 'skip to the chase' and tell you that he seems to have concluded that the ancestors of modern Europeans were hunter-gatherers and not the previously-accepted farmers from the Middle East. Tests on skeletons from the Cheddar Cave lent some weight to the theory because Cheddar Man and an older skeleton also studied were hunter-gatherers who lived at least six thousand years before farming arrived on the Isles and their DNA is identical to modern Europeans'.

The first known Homo Sapiens in the British Isles date to twenty-six thousand years ago, then there's a fourteen thousand year gap in the fossil records (due to the Ice Age). As temperatures gradually fell from year to year, the people living in what are now the British Isles retreated to the south - to France, Italy and Spain. When the climate improved, they followed the herds back North. Twelve thousand years ago the British Isles were still connected to Europe by land and the people crossed an area called Doggerland that now lies under the North Sea.


At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Clare said...

This sounds utterly fascinating, Susan. I love topics like this. If my TBR pile were not so big I'd buy it immediately - as it is I'm adding it to my amazon wish-list...

At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Ann Darnton said...

Someone is going to have to teach me how to create an Amazon wish-list because like Clare I think this sounds completely fascinating and the covers are so beautiful as well. I remember all the press coverage when this research was first revealed but never thought to follow it up. Why are there only 24 hours in the day?

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Susan said...

This is a very entertaining book alright! Sykes previously published the "Seven Daughters of Eve" (I think that's the title) in which he identifies seven main female progenitors for Europe. I've just put it on my own Amazon wish list. I like the way this chap simplifies the science for the ordinary reader. He also sounds like a very likeable person and has a pleasing, understated sense of humour.


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