Saxons, Vikings, and Celts by Bryan Sykes


Title: Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland
Series: N/A
Author: Bryan Sykes
Genre: Non-Fiction
Release Date: 2006
Format Read: Hardcover
Pages: 320


“Back of Book” Summary:

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is the most illuminating book yet to be written about the genetic history of Britain and Ireland. Through a systematic, ten-year DNA survey of more than 10,000 volunteers, Bryan Sykes has traced the true genetic makeup of British Islanders and their descendants. This historical travelogue and genetic tour of the fabled isles, which includes accounts of the Roman invasions and Norman conquests, takes readers from the Pontnewydd cave in North Wales, where a 300,000-year-old tooth was discovered, to the resting place of “The Red Lady” of Paviland, whose anatomically modern body was dyed with ochre by her grieving relatives nearly 29,000 years ago. A perfect work for anyone interested in the genealogy of England, Scotland, or Ireland, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts features a chapter specifically addressing the genetic makeup of those people in the United States who have descended from the British Isles.

My Review:

I have introduced you to a new art and a new language. An art that is written in the codes of our DNA, those unseen architects of our bodies, even of our souls (p 278).

This is the first book I’ve read by Oxford Geneticist Bryan Sykes, but it won’t be the last. I am not an expert in genetics, but I have enough knowledge of it to see how much Sykes “dumbed down” the scientific jargon for most people to follow along such a complex topic. Instead of focusing solely on genetic science, Sykes concentrated on the history of the British Isles and the people who migrated to it. He spoke quite often of his previous book The Seven Daughters of Eve throughout the text (which I have yet to read). He discovered a genetic link between all Europeans that traces back to seven major and several minor genealogical clans that we can all be grouped into based on our Mitochondrial DNA (about the same number of paternal clans for European men and about 36 clans worldwide for woman and 17 for men). He spent a great deal of effort trying to express just how amazingly philosophical this finding actually is. Below is a lengthy quote that stuck out to me as the best way to explain how genetic science and story telling narrative styles have been combined by Sykes.

The process is repeated generation after generation after generation. Nuclear DNA comes from the father and mother, mDNA only from the mother. Consider your own mDNA for a moment. It is powering your aerobic metabolism is ever cell — from the cells in your retina which collect the focused image from the page, to the muscles in your arm that turn the pages, to the cells that are burning fuel to keep you warm. All these functions are controlled by your mDNA which, because of its unusual inheritance, you have got only from your mother. Who got it from her mother. Who got it from her mother and so on. At any time in the past, be it 100, 1000, even 10,000 years ago, there was only one woman alive at the time from whom you inherited you mDNA. Even though I have known this for years it still amazes me to think about it (p 98).

Dr. Sykes claims that most inhabitants of the British Isles and Ireland share common ancestors that arrived in England between 6,000-10,000 years ago. He details their migration around the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula, through France and across the Channel to England. He says he found virtually no difference between Celtic and Pict genetics and these lines make up most of the blood of the Isles. Sykes says he found very little difference between Norman, Viking, and Saxon which meant that he couldn’t differentiate the exact group from DNA, but that the common link between them has left a mark on the British blood. Obviously from invasions. He found traces of Roman blood, but very little. The conclusion is that most people in the British Isles, including Ireland, are to this day made of the same common stock of ancient Celtic blood, even despite all the invasions.

Bryan Sykes runs a website that offers DNA testing for the purposes of learning about ones ancestors. It is rather expensive, actually more than other similar DNA tests. However, if you go through Oxford Ancestors he will match you with a clan mother, your family’s “Mitochondrial Eve”. This is something I would like to do one day. Although I cannot afford several hundred dollars for his services, I can afford to read his other books.

If you are looking for an in-depth, data-filled, scientific-jargon containing genetic study of Britain and Ireland this particular book may disappoint you. This book is recommended for those interested in the overall picture of this region’s genetic origins with the addition of history, myth, and narrative storyline weaved through basic genetic discussion (to those not very familiar with genetics it will most likely be a good introduction into the topic). I personally love the combination of scientific jargon with storytelling narrative because it allows readers to better visualize just how phenomena affects their lives. Genetics may be obscure to some people until they are encouraged to think about how even the ancestors they’ve never even imagined have passed on the genes that have made them what they are today. I highly recommend this book to those interested in British and Irish genetics.


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