Britain – A Genetic Journey – Alastair Moffat

The Ribchester Helmet – Roman

I’m really interested in the broad sweep of human history. I find books like Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond or Sapiens by Yuval Noah fascinating. They range freely, exploring general ideas and trends, and attempting to explain some of the riddles of human existence – who are we, why are we here, and how did it end up like this?

But the daily grind of traditional school history is boring. I can never remember which king is which, or whether the Corn Laws were a good or bad thing, and for who.

1066 and All That by Sellars and Yeatman was written for me. I’m personified ignorance when it comes to the Tudors, and in complete confusion over the Wars of the Roses.

But genetic research has added another dimension to our understanding of the broad sweep of human history, and I try to keep up to date with new discoveries as far as I can. I’ve seen Alice Roberts’ TV series The Incredible Human Journey and in a previous post I wrote about The Seven Daughters of Eve which was an early work on this topic.

Britain a Genetic Journey does go over lots of old ground, but it presents old information in an interesting and entertaining way, and introduces new ideas too.

The book opens with an account of the discovery of DNA, explaining the role of Crick and Watson, and pointing out why Franklin, some of whose ideas they stole, did not get the Nobel Prize – it can’t be awarded to dead people!

Moffat goes on to explain how technological advances allowed scientists to map the movement of DNA around the world through the mitochondria in maternal cells, and the y chromosomes in men.

We are all descended from one woman who lived in Africa approximately 190000 years ago. Mitochondrial Eve. As a Christian I don’t find this challenging. It does not surprise me that God took His time to get it all started, nor that it required pain, tears, toil and suffering. God was creating spiritual beings, not robots. They would need to make moral choices, and morality is built on suffering. Do unto others.

In any case the Jewish Bible gives pretty much the modern account of the creation of the world.

Let there be light: the big bang.

The separation of the water from the land;

the moon and stars;

first life in the sea;

then the plants;

finally the animals and man.

No other early creation account gets near to this and you have to ask how a small tribe in the Middle East could have got so close to the modern scientific sequence 3000 years ago without divine inspiration.

So Moffat gives us sections on Africa, and on the escape from Africa. He links ideas from geology and geography, focusing on rising and falling sea levels, and ideas about what the landscape in Africa and the Middle East was like over a hundred thousand years ago. In Europe we meet Neanderthal man and discover that everyone descended from the first small group that left Africa and survived has at least some Neanderthal DNA due to interbreeding.

Then there are cave paintings, and imaginative accounts of the prehistoric life of our hunter gatherer ancestors. It might seem obvious but this was the first book that explained clearly to me why all the cave paintings are in southern France and Spain. Moffat creates an imaginative picture of humans crouched in caves waiting for the spring snows to melt so they can slaughter the herds of migrating animals as they pass through the narrow defiles and gorges where the caves are situated.

Moffat reviews the transition in Europe from hunter gatherer communities to farming and the Bronze and Iron Age. This section is full of details about the technological developments that lead to change. He argues that skilled men moved into new areas often displacing the original menfolk, whose genes disappear, and marrying with the local women. He bases his evidence on DNA retrieved from skeletons in various places, and names the genes that show the provenance of different groups.

Copper was widely distributed across Europe, but Moffat argues that the mining and smelting was carried out not by the dissemination of skills from one community to the next, but by groups of skilled men who arrived in Britain and exploited their almost magical abilities to smelt ore. In one town in North Wales, close to the Great Orme copper mines, an unusually large number of men – about 40% – have genes originating from the Balkans. Moffat hypothesises that they brought their skills with them and settled down in Wales!

Moffat looks at ancient kings. He describes different kinds of burial traditions and grave goods, and writes about the cultures that coexisted in Britain, comparing the stone houses on the Scottish islands, the hill forts of southwest England and the ranging farmsteads of the south. He looks at two routes of migration into Ireland, one via Spain and the other Belgium, and shows how these differences manifest themselves in the genetic profiles of the modern populations.

When Moffat comes to the Roman invasion once again he goes into details that were new to me and quite fascinating. He turns up a Greek historian who wrote about Claudius’ invasion and describes the politics in Rome and in England too, giving a sense that we were really only witnessing an early version of 1066 along with broken promises and solemn oaths taken between rival kings in France and Britain.

He quotes fascinating details from historical sources that I did not know about, and I have read a lot of books on Roman history. Yawn you might say, but I have always loved the Romans. No idea why. Sorry!

Often Moffat uses direct quotations from historical sources which adds colour and realistic detail to the story.

And at each stage, as well as evoking imaginative pictures of life in Britain, Moffat keeps on returning to genetics. So its not page after page of science. But the bits of information he drops in are quite fascinating – like the 5000 Samarians that were stationed at Ribchester in Lancashire to keep them out of trouble in the Middle East!

At the moment I have not finished this book, so I’m not sure how much Samarian blood there is in the modern day population of Blackburn and Preston: but I can’t wait to find out.

I don’t need to say any more, or complete this review when I’ve finished the book. I hope that what’s here will whet your appetite to read on. It’s worth it, if you like that sort of thing!




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