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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Book Review: Saxons, Vikings, and Celts

Bryan Sykes's forthcoming Saxons, Vikings, and Celts (UK title: Blood of the Isles) is a genetic guidebook to Britain and Ireland that answers such age-old questions as "How are the Irish and Scots related?" and "What the hell is a 'Pict'?"

Sykes—a pioneering geneticist and founder of Oxford Ancestors—moves easily between myth, history, and science, as he must to tell a story this convoluted. The early history of the Isles—mostly a series of invasions, recoveries from invasion, and preparations for invasion—was poorly documented, if documented at all. Over the centuries this history was reshaped to suit current political needs, with historical events mythologized and new origin myths historicized. From this dubious mess Sykes seeks out "crumbs of credible historical fact," some of which foreshadow his own discoveries.

The arithmophobic layman has nothing to fear from this book. Sykes only once reduces his findings to a list of numbers, for which he immediately apologizes, saying, "This is no way to treat our ancestors." (For those who don't care how our ancestors are treated, the nasty details may be found on the companion website.) His explanations of how DNA may be used to discover genetic origins and migration patterns are made easier by reference to the now-famous Seven Daughters of Eve. If you don't grasp how Y-chromosome and mtDNA testing works when you pick the book up, you will when you put it down.

In the second half of Saxons, Sykes describes his travels to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England to gather DNA, each travelogue followed by an overview of that region's test results. The two genetic histories of each region are discussed: the one told by the Y-chromosome (passed from father to son), and the other told by mitochondrial DNA (passed from mother to child). The strongest conclusions are drawn from Scottish results; those drawn from English results are the most vague, owing to the common genetic origins of the later invading forces (Saxon, Dane, Viking, and Norman).

The historical details that Sykes teases out of the genes of the living are remarkable. Vikings in Iceland really did import their wives from Ireland and Scotland. The Romans left scarcely a genetic trace in England. The Picts were nothing more than mislabeled Celts. And, as ancient myths suggested, a large number of Irish Celts came from Spain.

Sykes describes his work as "genetic archaeology." What a perfect term to evoke the history buried in our cells, waiting to be brought to light.

(This review was based on a free "advance reading copy" of the book sent to me by the publisher.)

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