Monday, August 31, 2009

Knowing Less By Knowing More

One quarter of my genealogy, my maternal grandmother’s line, comes from the Lake Vattern area in Sweden: Ulricehamn, Fiskeback, Liared. Not being able to read Swedish, it’s easier to assume that people didn’t move much in that region before 1860 and my ancestors came from there oh, approximately forever. Another eighth looks Scots-Irish via SE New Hampshire, with some Puritans thrown in at times. The rest seems to be solidly Massachusetts Puritan, though some by way of Nova Scotia.

Until the 1980’s I just thought of that as “English,” from god-knows-where in the UK. I may have known that the surname “Wyman” suggested a remote Anglian or Saxon origin. But not until I read David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed did the larger picture come clear for me. East Anglia was the white-hot center of Puritan migration to New England, and by the very name of this area (the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, sometimes Cambridge and Essex) one can tell it absorbed most of the Anglo-Saxon invasions beginning around 400AD.

Thus I pretty much assumed that most of my English lines would eventually run to ground in East Anglia, and more than half of those genes would at some point have transited what is now Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and the rest of the Danish peninsula (if any of the Jutes had worked their way into the mix). That’s not all that far from the Swedish bunch, if they were indeed in the area 1500 years ago, and so I came to regard those corners of the world –from London to The Wash for a millenium, from Vattern to Hamburg farther back – as being my regions of origin.

The actual genealogy, when we could trace it back to the UK at all, wasn’t cooperating with this theory. Counties like Bedfordshire, Lincoln, and Hertfordshire were bad enough. They were at least close. But Isle of Wight and Bristol showed up as well. Quakers on Cape Cod. I knew that a number of factors - non-paternity events, the odd Australian moving to Londonderry in the 1800’s, families up and moving miles away for reasons no longer known – made any one line vulnerable. Yet with gaps of the same type throughout the family tree, I reasoned most of them would fit the dominant pattern. Massachusetts Puritans equals Norfolk and Suffolk equals 50% Anglo-Saxon and Danes, the rest being Britons, and the occasional Frisian.

This theory has very little chance of being true, I find. Where I can’t find an immigrant ancestor on any line I check the surname prevalence and find that all those Crowells, Whittemores, Spinneys, Neats, Eatons, Doanes, and Larkins don’t tend to come from East Anglia. Any of them might have, but the trend is against it. The southern coast of England, from Cornwall to Kent seems to have the highest concentration of those names. As Hampshire and Wiltshire are also represented, some connection to my favorite areas of Avebury and Watership Down are also possible. Those areas had their Saxons – Wessex and all that – but not nearly so many.

One teeny line way back goes through Norfolk, another through Suffolk. A few around Cambridge. That’s the whole East Anglian DNA census at present.

Furthermore, I learn from Bryan Sykes Saxons, Vikings, and Celts that the tribes which gave us our language, the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons, didn’t give us their genes as well. Less than 25%, actually, and a lot of that on the East coast of England. The rest are from the original Britons, who like the Picts and Gaels, were Celts and had been in the UK for thousands of years.

It’s a theory much more boring, but at least more likely.


Unknown said...

Genes and culture are two distinct things (and there are a number of problems with that study, but that's another topic). It's remarkable -- in the literal sense -- that Celtic culture was so thoroughly pushed to the edges, given the Anglo-Saxon propensity for borrowing words and the dearth of Celtic loans. It's a stark contrast to the number of loans from, for example, Old Norse.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, it does support the idea that the Anglo-Saxons were culturally dominant in more than language that they created at least the appearance of eliminating the Britons from the eastern side.

Tell me the problems with the Sykes study.

Unknown said...

The challenge with any population genetics analysis is finding markers that uniquely identify a population. When a population has been in close contact with another population, it becomes more difficult because it's harder to find a unique marker; when the populations have been in contact for hundreds of years, it becomes extremely difficult. It's somewhat easier (comparatively) now than when I was a bioanthropology student because we have so much more sophisticated genetic technology, but it's still a thorny problem. In the Americas, the research I'm most familiar with, the analogous study would have been looking for Navajo genetic markers among the Zuni, although at least in that study, you could take samples from other Athapascan groups in Canada or Alaska, compare them to the Navajo samples, and find a genetic marker.

When you reproduce, you share genes.

There is no Celtic population on the globe that is to any extent genetically pristine. How do you identify a Celtic genetic marker? To put it another way, how do you know that any given marker is a Celtic genetic marker, and not the result of contact?

There was another study, quite recent, and sorry, but at the moment I do not recall the researchers' names, that looked at "Viking" genes and found that most of the area in Britain in which they conducted the study -- not just Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, where you'd expect to find a sigificant presence -- the "Viking" marker showed up. The problem is how do you genetically separate the "Vikings" from the Anglo-Saxons, when historically, the two populations were closely related and only a very narrow band of water separated them? The issue is even thornier because most of the Anglo-Saxon population ended up in Britain, and the original local population was replaced (although we do have Friesland, where the population has remained largely pristine).

Anyway, I was speaking of culture, and genes do not map very well onto culture. Even if the Celts (or for that matter, the Vikings) are highly represented genetically in today's British population, Celtic culture was replaced, and although Scandinavian culture did leave an imprint, it was subsumed into Anglo-Saxon culture.