Gene Expression

Bad historical population genetics?

Nick Wade has a new article which draws upon the two new books about the genetics of the British Isles, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, by Bryan Sykes, and The Origin of the British, by Stephen Oppenheimer. The gist is that the British peoples are genetically very similar, and predominantly the descendents of post-Ice Age settlers who swept up along the Atlantic seaboard from the “Iberian refugia”.1 To a first approximation this story is about right, the various studies seem to be converging upon the finding that most Britons and Irish are closer to each other than they are to continental populations (i.e., the English are closer to the Irish than their “fellow” Germanic peoples), and, they are closer to the peoples of southwestern Europe than they are to those of southeast or northeast Europe. But beyond the broad brushes there are fine grained details, and that is what Sykes and Oppenheimer seem to be attempting to fill in. I’ve read Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, and have a review forthcoming, but suffice it to say that Sykes’ work is servicable if a bit overly ambitious. I’ve haven’t read Oppenheimer’s book, but I have read his The Real Eve. He’s not one to be modest, and he’s trying to make another splash. I’ve stated earlier that I thought the Etruscan studies were historical population genetics done right, and I think here Oppenheimer in particular is all about the discipline done wrong. From a Popperian perspective I suppose one could say that Oppenheimer is making bold claims which demand to be tested, but, his idea that Germanic speech predates the Anglo-Saxons, and that the Celts brought agriculture to England, rest upon revisionst and extreme minority positions within history, archaeology and linguistics. It would be one thing if the genetics was rock solid, but it isn’t. The whole model seems an intellectual mess, more ego than experiment. The populations of northwestern Europe may simply be genetically too close to use uniparental phylogenies to definitively decide between historical hypotheses, other fields need to offer concurrent evidence, and that just isn’t happening here.

Update: Check out Language Log‘s critique.

1 – During the Last Glacial Maximum humans retreated in Europe to the more sheltered peripheries of the continent, whether it be in the Iberian peninsula, isolated valleys in the Balkans or the broad expanses of southern Ukraine. After the ice retreated a demographic radiation ensued from these points of origin which have left their genetic imprint.


  1. #1 Simon G.
    March 6, 2007

    I completely agree with you here, Oppenheimer’s got a rigid view of prehistory that he’s dreamed up, and he’s sticking to it.

    For example, his genetics papers that I’m familiar with (Austronesian) use shoddy dating techniques (one molecular clock calibration point, _rho_, at orders of magnitudes greater than the history he’s trying to date) to get a huge range of age estimates (6,000 – 50,000 years ago). Despite this, they apparently still support his “revolutionary” view of Pacific prehistory which dates the spread of these people to circa 13,000 BP. This is completely in contradiction of all the linguistic and archaeological evidence.


  2. #2 Simon G.
    March 6, 2007

    Oh, and in case you missed it, LanguageLog has a linguists point of view on this work:

  3. #3 John Emerson
    March 6, 2007

    Language Log isn’t at all impressed with the Tise article’s linguistics.

  4. #4 David B
    March 7, 2007

    I’ve just been reading Sykes’s book, and I’m not impressed. I was looking for evidence that Sykes had distinguished between R1 Y-haplotypes of British (Celtic or pre-Celtic) origin and Continental origin. Except for the special case of the Orkneys and Shetlands, I don’t see that he does this at all – he simply assumes that the ‘Oisin’ haplogroup is pre-Anglo-Saxon.

  5. #5 Jonathan Gress
    March 8, 2007

    Hi Razib

    Great blog! I’m a linguist, not an archeologist or a geniticist, so I’m only qualified to talk about language stuff. Oppenheimer and Forster are simply frauds. Others like them have included e.g Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen. These are all non-linguists who entered the field with huge egos and no scruples. At least Greenberg knew a lot about languages, even if he didn’t care about linguistics.
    These guys all fail in their historical reconstruction of languages simply because they don’t understand that you HAVE to find cognates before you can do any comparison or glottochronology. Cognates are the ONLY way you can prove genetic relationship between languages. Period. Superficial similarities do NOT cut it. At all. End of story.

  6. #6 Joe Blow
    March 9, 2007

    With all this talk about Celts, why no discussion of Gaul (France) – the *center* of the Celtic world in its heydey (Britain, Spain and the eastern Galicias being the periphery)? Am I missing something, or is this English avoidance of France an intellectual blind spot – ironically, reflecting the modern continuation of this very same kulturkampf between Saxons and Gaels?

  7. #7 David Eddyshaw
    March 12, 2007

    re Celts and Gaul:
    There is _no_ necessary connexion between speaking a language as one’s mother tongue and belonging to any particular genetic group. This is obvious in modern times (think America), but in fact seems always to have been so. Edward Sapir in his classic “Language” actually uses the Celts as a specific example of mismatch (concluding that today’s Southern Germans and Czechs are as likely as any to be representative of the Celtic population of Classical times!)

  8. #8 Lydia
    March 12, 2007

    >There is _no_ necessary connexion between speaking a language as one’s mother tongue and belonging to any particular genetic group.

    Exactly right. Genetic evidence indicates that, by and large, the various invasions did NOT usually displace preexisting people groups but overlay more numerous native substrata and culturally assimilated them.

    From a more fundamental point of view, it’s pertty silly for Europeans to think of themselves as Indo-Europeans–as silly as the French claiming that they’re really Romans. Most of their ancestors were in place long before the IE invasions. Their cultures and languages, but largely not the local genetic makeup, were changed by the invasions.

  9. #9 razib
    March 12, 2007

    Most of their ancestors were in place long before the IE invasions.

    yes. it seems likely that even if renfrew’s idea of the neolithic being brought by IE speakers is right in most of north and west europe the proportion is a minority in terms of ancestry.