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Customer Review

33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blood or Culture, January 28, 2007
This review is from: Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland (Hardcover)
One must read books like this with a certain caution. Efforts to map the geographical distribution of DNA could lead to errant interpretation by the lay public, or by academics who have isolated themselves within narrow niche fields. Geographic DNA mapping is an incredibly valuable tool for use in the pursuit of anthropology and archeology, but it is not necessarily a stand-alone discipline. It has helped reinforce or refute theories of human migration, provided us some "who were they genetically when they got there?" answers to various archeological questions, and given each of us the ability to trace our lineages back and back and back toward a point from which we all come anyway.

The bottom line is that all of us, dark-skinned or light, almond-eyed or round, ultimately come from the same place, which was a genetic near-bottleneck in Africa fifty thousand or so years ago.

Judging from the success of Sykes' enterprise, Oxford Ancestors, many people are drawn to know their precise geographical lineages, the sometimes epic journeys of their (and simultaneously everyone else's) ancestors. This knowledge can certainly be enlightening, but this knowledge doesn't necessarily fill in the cultures and customs of those ancestors as they moved through the millennia. It cannot tell us who erected the standing stones that appear in the British Isles and elsewhere in northern Europe, what language they spoke; what became of their culture. It CAN tell us that the Picts preceded the Celts into Britain, but the Picts were probably just Celts who got an earlier start. What makes a Pict different from a Celt? When the Picts and Celts first met in Britain, were they able to speak to one another? Or had their languages already drifted apart? When the Picts arrived, did they encounter a culture already in situ, perhaps the culture that erected the standing stones? Geographic DNA mapping can show us the route of our ancestors, and the scientific importance of this information must not be under appreciated, but the Culture of our ancestors should draw our curiosity more than the composition of their blood.

Which is not to say that "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" is not a fascinating, informative read; it is a rollicking short history of the British Isles told in an entertaining narrative voice. I appreciate Sykes' courage in presenting his research in an accessible fashion, of fleshing out his data in human terms. I felt the same of his previous work, "The Seven Daughters of Eve", and learned much from that book even while I knew that he had been taking hits from the academic community for popularizing his topic. But I wish that "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" had been much longer and much more detailed, not in the science he presents, which seems pretty complete, but in the struggles he and his team endured in order to complete the project; the ways in which his research subjects responded to his results. He discusses some of these struggles in passing, but I kept thinking that there was a much larger story beyond the science and I would like to have learned more about it.
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