[Paleopsych] Telegraph: The caveman in all of us

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Tue Jul 19 01:21:43 UTC 2005

The caveman in all of us
    (Filed: 10/07/2005)
    Noel Malcolm reviews The Tribes of Britain by David Miles.

    There is no book so sensible that it cannot be rendered slightly
    absurd by a publisher's blurb. "At a time of political devolution,
    immigration, globalisation and European referendums," announces the
    publicity handout for this book, "The Tribes of Britain provides a
    timely historical overview of the big issue: 'where have we come
    from?'" So reading a book by an archaeologist about the early
    inhabitants of the British Isles will help you to make up your mind
    about the European Constitution? You might as well study the history
    of Babylonian astronomy in order to decide what line to take on global

    It goes on. "Interestingly, Britain has always depended upon
    immigration even [sic] since the first hunter-gatherers followed the
    herds of horses and reindeer into this uninhabited frontier..." Well,
    yes, at a time when Britain was uninhabited, immigration would have
    played quite a role - assuming that modern science has definitively
    ruled out the spontaneous generation of babies in cabbage-patches. But
    what it means to say that Britain has "always depended" on immigration
    is much less clear; and even if it were clear for the Bronze Age or
    the Anglo-Saxon period, it would have no necessary implications for
    policy today.

    What we are witnessing here is a bad attack of STS - Spurious
    Topicality Syndrome - a disease which is almost endemic in the
    publishing world. Journalists may need topical "pegs" on which to hang
    their daily or weekly articles, but a serious book, intended to last
    for years, should be able to stand up on its own.

    This book is - despite its packaging, and despite the occasional
    clanky humour of its author - a serious attempt to provide an overview
    of a huge and fascinating subject. David Miles was until recently the
    Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage; having been on digs in all
    parts of the British Isles, looking at evidence from the Neolithic
    period to the Middle Ages, he is an unusually well qualified guide to
    the early history of these islands. There is much to be learned here
    about both the latest archaeological techniques and the latest

    The techniques are fascinating in themselves. We all know that timbers
    can be dated by tree-rings, but the degree of precision that is now
    possible is simply astonishing: when a timber circle recently appeared
    at low tide on the Norfolk coast, archaeologists were able to
    determine that the oak was cut in the spring of 2,049 BC. One of the
    experts who studied "Seahenge" also worked out, after minutely
    examining the timbers, that they bore the imprints of 51 different
    bronze axe-blades.

    That is old-style archaeology, practised at new levels of
    sophistication. But there is also a whole new science of physical and
    genetic analysis. Give a bone from a Neolithic skeleton to the right
    scientists, and they will tell you, after analysing the carbon and
    nitrogen isotopes, what types of foodstuff provided the protein in
    that person's diet. Better still, give them a tooth, and they may be
    able to extract the remains of enough soft tissue from inside it to
    run up a profile of the deceased's DNA.

    This sort of genetic analysis has made possible the development of
    some new theories, and the questioning of many old ones. Textbooks
    used to describe European prehistory in terms of waves of migrating
    peoples: the Celts moved into the British Isles in the first
    millennium BC, replacing whoever was here before, and they were in
    turn replaced (in England, at least) by Angles and Saxons and Danes.
    It was a game of ethnic musical chairs; no one seems to have inquired
    too closely into what happened to the people who lost their seats when
    the music changed.

    But do entire peoples simply move in, expelling or murdering the
    previous ones? It can happen, but it seems to be more the exception
    than the rule. Much more commonly, the underlying population remains
    in place, and is just assimilated to a newly dominant culture. The way
    of life may change; the language may change; and the evidence left by
    such changes can make it look as if one population has given way to a
    different one. But that is rather as if a future archaeologist,
    examining the contents of your house, were to decide that the Habitat
    People who lived there in the 1970s had been driven out by the Ikea
    People who arrived in the 1990s.

    This is where the new techniques of genetic analysis come into their
    own. When researchers recovered DNA from the tooth of an Ice Age
    huntsman buried in a cave in Cheddar Gorge, they found that it matched
    the DNA of the history master, and two of his pupils, at the local
    school. No doubt those Somerset folk had also acquired, in the
    intervening 9,000 years, many ancestors whose origins lay elsewhere
    (Celts, Romans, Saxons, Huguenots, and so on). But the underlying
    continuity is a striking fact, all the more striking because it was
    unknowable until a few years ago.

    Unfortunately, though, individual findings such as these are much more
    clear-cut than any overall pattern can be. Miles notes that there is a
    sort of Celtic-Germanic gradient running west-east across Britain: the
    further east an English family comes from, the more likely it is to
    share its DNA with people from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.
    But, he suggests, this could be the result of long-term interactions
    on a small scale; it does not necessarily imply any single episode of

    The early part of this book is full of such uncertainties; but they
    are the best uncertainties currently available. In the second half of
    the book, as David Miles canters from the early Middle Ages to the
    present, his information becomes more definite and less interesting
    (and less up to date: he seems not to know that recent research has
    challenged the identification of the Black Death with bubonic plague).

    There are better books to read on the Reformation, the Industrial
    Revolution, and so on; Miles apparently thought it was necessary to
    cover all this ground in order to bring in Huguenots, Afro-Caribbeans
    and East European Jews, but what he has to say about each of those
    groups is unoriginal and rather slight. Like an archaeologist in a
    hurry, the reader should dig down into the early part of this book,
    leaving the rest of it (and its preposterous blurb) on the spoil-heap.

      Noel Malcolm's books include 'Aspects of Hobbes' (Clarendon Press)

    The Tribes of Britain
    David Miles
    Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, 480 pp

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