Blood of the Isles
by Bryan Sykes
A Bookheathen Review
I became fascinated by genetics back in my student days. The science was still at an early stage then. We knew about DNA but were still a long way from using it to solve crimes, and an even longer way from sequencing the human genome.
‘It is now almost ten years since the day I drilled into the Cheddar tooth, but the moment is still vivid in my memory. It was not the first time I had attempted to recover DNA from ancient skeletons, but it was the most scary.’
Bryan Sykes is Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University and chairman of Oxford Ancestors Ltd, a company dedicated to providing its clients with ancestry information based on their DNA (on payment of a not-so-small though reasonable fee). I have written about Professor Sykes before, and I reviewed his first book here on WordPress back in 2014 (https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/its-all-in-the-dna/) .
Whereas The Seven Daughters of Eve discussed female ancestry, Blood of the Isles, his third book, published in 2006, looks at male, in particular the amazing history that can be discovered from the Y-chromosome.
[If you already know all about DNA, forgive the pedantry and omit the next two paragraphs!]
DNA exists in two forms, the ordinary stuff attached to our chromosomes inside the nucleus of our cells, and mitochondrial DNA (mDNA). We get the former from both our parents; we get the latter only from our mothers.
We all have forty-six chromosomes, and forty-four of those come in pairs, twenty-two from each of our parents. Two, the X and Y chromosomes are special and how they combine – either as XX or as XY – determines our sex. The do not necessarily come from both parents. Human beings with the XX combination are female; those with XY are male.
The Isles of the book’s title are the British Isles. (NB a geographical description and not in any way political). Bryan Sykes has done DNA tests on more than ten thousand people from all over these islands, from Shetland to the Scilly Isles, from the Aran Isles to the North Sea. His work demonstrates that whoever we think we are, wherever we suppose we came from, we are in all probability wrong!
‘Whereas there are seven maternal clans which predominate in western Europe, there are only five paternal clans defined by the Y-chromosome. Each of these began with just one man …..’
The first part of the book deals broadly with history and myth. The author moves on to discuss blood groups and the nature of his work. Finally, he gives details of his team’s research in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England (in that order) and gives us the results both in narrative and in diagrammatic form.
‘The first conclusion, blindingly obvious now I can see it, is that we have in front of us two completely different histories. The maternal and paternal origins of the Isles are different.’
Danes, Vikings, Picts, Scots, Normans and Saxons all come into the story, and they – all of them – form the mish-mash of humanity that makes up the population of these islands. The most common male ancestor of the people of Ireland turns out to be a man to whom Sykes gives the name Oisin, from the mythical son of the mythical leader of the Fianna, Finn mac Cumhaill. That Oisin genes should predominate in Scotland, England and Wales as well, though not to the same extent, is quite instructive as it turns out.
The most populous of the female ‘clans’ is that of Helena (45-46%), a woman who lived 20 thousand years ago somewhere along the valley of the River Rhone during the height of the last ice age.
Blood of the Isles is a great book for anyone with an interest in family history and ancestry. While it doesn’t tell you how to go about tracing your family tree, it does explain what ancestry is all about and why assumptions are unwise and often erroneous.