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142 of 150 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One in a million, December 12, 2006
This review is from: Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland (Hardcover)
This is a popular account of the Oxford Genetic Atlas Project, an attempt to map the genetic composition of Britain and Ireland. Prof. Sykes is something of an academic star, best known as the author of 'The Seven Daughters of Eve'.

The book is not heavy on technicalities but the necessary background is clearly explained. DNA is the instruction set for a living organism. Most of it gets mixed in sexual procreation, half coming from each parent. This does not happen, however, to two particular kinds: mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) which is copied from mother to children and is passed on only by daughters, and the DNA of the male Y-chromosome which is copied from father to sons. Because these come from only one parent, they remain stable over a great many generations. To cut to the chase, it is possible in principle to use mDNA to trace your matrilineal ancestry - mother, grandmother, great-grandmother - all the way back. Twenty thousand years ago there was just one living woman from whom you inherit your mDNA (maybe her mother was alive too - oh, all right, her granny as well).

By studying and comparing mutations in the mDNA sequence (random unimportant copying errors which, once they occur, are passed on) it is possible to allocate all human beings to a few dozen groups or 'clans'. Within each clan the lines of matrilineal ancestry are inferred to converge to one woman whom the author calls 'clan mother'. For example, most people of west European origin are descended from one or other of seven clan mothers who lived between 10000 and 45000 years ago. Prof. Sykes believes he can determine where as well as when these clan mothers lived: 'Helena' in the south of France, 'Jasmine' in Syria and so on. I am no geneticist and there are assumptions here that I am not qualified to comment on.

Half the book is taken up with thumbnail sketches of the countries of the Isles - England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales - with the focus on early history and prehistory. Depending how much you know about the Isles and how much you want to know, you may find this interesting. In each case the author describes how he collected DNA samples. To tell the truth, some readers have been known to take against the Prof's style ('I did this, I did that') but it flows well and it grows on you. He sorts the data into clans and plots them on maps of the Isles by reference to the birthplace of the donor's maternal grandmother. What we have at this stage looks, to the untrained eye, like a set of maps called Helena, Jasmine etc. with measles.

In a later chapter he summarizes his conclusions, which are briefly as follows. The genetic bedrock of the Isles was laid down by hunter-gatherers who moved in after the last Ice Age, followed by farming folk coming from Spain several millennia later. The most paradoxical not to say disappointing result for some readers will be that he finds no genetic affinity between the Celtic fringe (Wales, Ireland, Gaelic Scotland) and the Iron Age Celts of continental Europe. The 'Celts' of the Isles talked the talk, but that seems to have been as far as it went. He does find a significant Norse overlay in the Northern Isles of Scotland, and a less pronounced north German/Danish input in parts of England. Another genetic archaeologist recently claimed that the majority of English people - contrary to orthodoxy since the Second World War, for obvious reasons - are descended from incoming Anglo-Saxons. It all depends on interpretation, and I have a feeling that a lot remains to be thrashed out. Invasions might not come in waves but academic fashions do.

Now let me mention a thought that gives me pause. Going back 500 years I have up to a million ancestors (fewer in fact because of inbreeding, but still a lot). Just one of them was a matrilineal ancestress from whom I get my mDNA, and one was a patrilineal ancestor from whom I get my Y-chromosomes. If you're a WASP, one or both of them could be yours too. Prof. Sykes likes to make up imaginary scenarios for his clansfolk, so here goes: my matrilineal ancestress was a runaway Spanish nun, and my patrilineal ancestor was the Genoese sailor Giacomo, a big-time bigamist. Reconstructing early Tudor England from those two would be quite a trick. Now go back twenty thousand years. I have one clan mother and one clan father. This does not mean that I had no other ancestors living then (still less, as one poor soul thinks, that it proves creationism), merely that I happen to get my mDNA and Y-chromosomes from those two out of many contemporary ancestors. This is a perilously small sample - two out of how many thousands? - but perhaps it can tell us something reliable about prehistory. Is that obvious? I don't know, and you won't find the question raised in this book.

I don't believe the book is the last word; it could even be misleading if, for example, people think they come from Syria because their clan mother is Jasmine; but it is well written, interesting and worth reading.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 24, 2007 9:02:48 AM PST
A fine review! Like the book it describes beautifully, "well-written, interesting and worth reading."

Mark Blackburn
Winnipeg Manitoba Canada

Posted on May 11, 2007 9:44:03 AM PDT
Excellent review. Thank you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2007 10:27:56 AM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Aug 22, 2008 12:40:41 AM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 12, 2007 4:16:51 PM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Jan 30, 2009 11:28:30 AM PST]

Posted on Mar 26, 2009 11:33:20 PM PDT
doc peterson says:
Excellent review. I'm familiar with the work of Spencer Wells (on a much, much larger scale) - I was unaware that similar work was being done just on the British Isles. The questions you raise are quite good; and while I'm tempted to read the book out of curiosity, that the author apparently makes "imaginary scenarios" for me is a detraction. While it may be "fun" and even "interesting" to go off on such tangents, they are, in the final analysis, a waste as the scientific (and historical) veracity is moot.

Posted on Jul 19, 2009 12:46:39 AM PDT
I would be very interested to know who is the "Genetic archaeiologist" who has favored the Anglo-Saxon genetic source?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 24, 2010 9:51:35 PM PST
I'd like to know more, out of curiosity, about my background: how much Celtic and how much Angle, Saxon and Jute and how much otherwise. I objurgate racism and racialism!

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 29, 2011 3:30:49 PM PDT
Suet says:
Hello Donna L. Harper,

Sorry I took so long to respond to your question! The study I had in mind is:

Weale et al. (2002), 'Y chromosome evidence for Anglo-Saxon mass migration', Molecular Biology & Evolution 19(7), 1008-21.

They reported that in terms of the Y chromosome, the population of central and eastern England is virtually indistinguishable from that of Friesland.

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 11:08:30 AM PST
This is a very balanced review. Your conclusion, "invasions might not come in waves but academic fashions do," is so true and so well describes academia and modern scientific wisdom. Politicians (i.e. Al Gore) lift these people up as gods and want to order society based solely on their conclusions. People throw DNA data around and pronounce it the last word on everything from evolution to people migrations. At the same time, I appreciate speculative books like this one that probe into the age-old questions of where we come from and who we are related to. Like you I believe there is much more to the story than we know. Science is an ongoing process and down the road there are bound to be some surprises.
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