Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots Of Britain And Ireland, by Bryan Sykes, read by Dick Hill
For the most part this is an enjoyable book. The author is in charge of Oxford Ancestors, one of the many companies that seeks to build an understanding of the genes of men and women for profit and research, and this book follows in the author’s previous work on the subject in books like the Seven Daughters of Eve. As is often the case in a book like this , the author weaves as great deal of his own story into the obvious larger story of population movements and how they can be traced. This is certainly not objectionable, the author is humorous and it is deeply fascinating to see how he turned to blood donors as early adopters for genetic research in the days where blood was necessary before the cheek swabbing that I did became popular and less painful for those who wished to have their gene markers better known and understood. And since the story is generally intriguing and mixes an interest in narrative story and myth (although selectively) with his interests in genetic genealogy, all of which provides an intriguing picture.
This particular book is organized in a geographic way, breaking up the British Isles into four large regions and numerous smaller ones that are based as much as possible on history with an eye towards distinguishing these regions based on their history and determining at least some of the influences that they were faced with. Beginning with Ireland and then moving on to Scotland, Wales, and England, the author finds a dominant Celtic mDNA pattern (along with a healthy amount of Middle Eastern Atlantic farmers in the west) throughout the Isles except where there has been some Viking women, such as in the Shetland and Orkney islands off of Scotland. His efforts at understanding the y-DNA picture are a bit hampered by the Genghis effect which shows mostly Celtic ancestry throughout the isles, with Gaelic replacement of Picts in much of Western Scotland and a notable spike of Danes and/or Saxons in the Danelaw. These conclusions, along with the process by which the author sought enough genetic evidence to be able to come to his conclusions, is told with a good deal of verve and gentle humor throughout, and summarized at the end as well.
Even if I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions or with his belief in a supposed genetic clock, there is still a great deal worthy of insight here. The author notes that the different way that y-DNA and mDNA are spread, whether on the strict paternal or maternal lines, tend to give very different results, as sex-selective patterns appear to have been far harder on men, and the competition for women led certain genes (like the Clan Donald and Dougal or the Ui Neill) to be particularly common but with a great deal more consistently Celtic stock among women, who presumably were less able to establish competitive lines that had the same difference in prestige as was the case among men. If the author seems particularly disinclined to ponder about the relationship between the biblical history and the Isles, and the way that small elites were particularly important in leadership, there is still at least some worth in the author’s approach. If he finds a compelling story, it is at least one that he considers to be evidence based, although he appears to underestimate the importance of interpretation to his own approach, even as he gently chides such writers as Gildas for exaggerating the effects of the Saxon invasion, for example.
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