Stephen Oppenheimer is a British paediatrician, geneticist and academic who has undertaken extensive research into the origins of the British and other European peoples, including his 2006 book entitled ‘The Origins Of The British’, in which he explores the genetic history of the native peoples of Britain. In his book, Oppenheimer hypothesises that the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic impact on the British gene pool were minimal and that the main bulk of our genetic stock can be traced back to the repopulation of Northern Europe after the end of the last ice age (c. 15,000 years ago). This runs contrary to much of the archaeological and cultural evidence that we see in present day England in particular, but as can be proven by genetic trails, culture and genetics do not always follow one another (although the extent to which this is true is exaggerated by Oppenheimer).
The book begins with an attack firstly on the concept of ‘Celtic’ as an ethnic group. Oppenheimer states that the concept of an insular Celtic empire of ‘Hallstatt’ Celts is something of a myth perpetuated by 18th century historians that has little to no genetic evidence supporting it, only archaeological. In particular, Oppenheimer derides the work of 18th century academic Edward Lhuyd who was the main author of works that began this myth of a great historic Celtic empire. The basis for this criticism is quite correct in that Lhuyd based his evidence on the fact that the Romans referred to certain tribes of people in Europe as ‘Celtae’ or ‘Keltoi’, and that the Greek historian Herodotus used these terms to refer to groups of people ‘based at the source of the Danube’.
Herodotus died in 425 BC and lived in South East Europe for his entire life, being born in Turkey and meeting his end in Italy. He did not travel outside of this area and mistakenly believed the River Danube originated in the Pyrenees mountains, which is the piece of information Lhuyd omits from his work. Oppenheimer claims that Lhuyd, being a Welsh nationalist, intentionally left out this crucial part of Herodotus’ mistake in order to put forward this myth of an ancient, vast Celtic empire in Central Europe. Whilst the criticism of the notion of Hallstatt Celts being the ethnic group that populated the British Isles is a correct one, it does not dispel the idea of a homogeneous ethnic group populating Britain after the last glacial maximum, it simply is an error of terminology. Ie, the people we call Celts today are not the people Lhuyd was referring to in his work.
At this point it is only fair to look at Oppenheimer’s influencing personal circumstances, since he is rather fond of using the same methods to attack the work of others. The first and most important point is that Oppenheimer is an academic working within a university culture that is on the side of much of 20th century anthropology (politically correct and against Darwinist theories), thus, as said anthropologists would agree themselves, his work might be influenced by the culture and environment in which he finds himself.
The other factor is his personal background which he himself describes as being “3rd generation goy (a Jewish word for non-Jews)”, yet in the very same article states that he “became aware of his Jewishness” during his schoolboy days when he was the victim of anti-semitism. As with other prominent 20th century researchers in similar fields such as Stephen Gould, it is possible that this association with a culturally Jewish in-group could have an affect on his work. For instance, there is great evidence to suppose that Gould based his opposition to evolutionary theory on his belief that “the goyim are inherently anti-semetic” and that evolutionary theory disadvantaged Jewish people (See Culture of Critique Chapter 1, Kevin MacDonald PhD). Similarily, Oppenheimer talks with contempt of the notion of ‘Aryan invasions’ of the British Isles as if to link his work to the opposition of early 20th century National Socialist racial theory. However, this is merely a loose suggestion for the reader to consider and regardless of influences, there is little evidence to suggest the main bulk of Oppenheimer’s work is anything other than scientifically accurate.
The reason the issue of Celtic origin is important is because the previously accepted theory led us to believe that there was a major genetic divide between Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall on one hand, and England on the other. However, Oppenheimer shows this to be mostly false, while still acknowledging some degree of genetic difference between the regions. The main reason for this is related to the ice age refuges occupied by northern Europeans during the last glacial maximum, which were based in the Basque region, the Ukraine and the south Baltic region. Each of these refuges have a distinct genetic marker based on Y (male) chromosomes; R1b (Basque region), I (Ukraine) and R1a (Baltic). These are markers that have survived in the populations of Europe throughout the last 15,000 years and have spread throughout their respective regions. R1b is most prevalent in the British Isles, parts of the Basque region and the Breton region of France, I has spread throughout Northern Europe through eastern Germany and into Scandinavia whilst R1a has remained mainly eastern, moving through Poland and the traditionally Slavic nations.
As you will see from the map above, there is indeed great genetic similarity between the Basque region and the British Isles. This supports Oppenheimer’s suggestion to an extent that the British people’s genetic stock is still rooted in those who repopulated North Western Europe when the ice melted 15,000 years ago. However, our similarities are mainly with those of pure Basque stock as opposed to Spanish people in general who have a much greater influence in their genetics from the Arab world which we do not. It is also important to note the genetic similarities between the North West of continental Europe (Frisia, the low countries etc) and mainland Britain, which supports Oppenheimer’s suggestions that there were trade links and genetic spread between Britain and the Belgae, Frisians and other North Western tribes prior to the Roman invasion (6,000-2,000 BC). It is also hypothesised that the reason Old English is closer to Old Frisian than Old Saxon is because of the aforementioned trade links established prior to the Roman invasion, meaning it is quite possible Germanic languages were spoken in Britain long before the Anglo-Saxon invasion.
It is true that there are differences between England and the rest of the British Isles, but these are overwhelmingly cultural as opposed to ethnic (although Ireland is further away from England than Frisia, for example). These cultural differences stem from trade flow between England and Frisians prior to the Roman invasion and have been further entrenched by the later inavsions of the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norsemen. The earliest coins from the pre-Roman period were made by the Belgae in what is now Northern France/Belgium and whilst it is not known for sure the ethnic origins of these tribes, they were either Gauls or as the Romans described them, “descendents of the Germani from across the Rhine”.
The conclusions that we can draw from Oppenheimer’s findings are twofold: first, we now know that the influence of the Anglo-Saxons on our genetic stock was nowhere near what we once believed. In fact, the displacement of the native population is now estimated at less than 5%, whilst the Vikings had slightly more impact (with their I haplogroup genetic marker) than previously thought. Secondly, we now know that the British Isles are more ethnically homogeneous than previously thought, as the differences between England and the rest of Britain have always been exaggerated (mostly by Welsh/Irish nationalists), whereas they are in fact cultural, as we all have common ancestors from the western ice age refuge (R1b marker).
Still, Oppenheimer’s work is by no means conclusive and does still leave many questions unanswered. Where were our ancestors prior to the last ice age? Where did the Celtic culture truly originate, if not Hallstatt?
However, we now know much more than previously thought about our ancestors. For those interested in the genetic history of European people, works by early 20th century theorists such as Hans F. K. Günther are still relevant to the subject, although the previously accepted racial types and sub-types may have shifted geographically if not scientifically. It would probably serve better to read Oppenheimer’s work in unison with some of the older theorists of racial science, as one can often be used to fill in the gaps of the other, whilst 20th century type labels can be translated into their appropriate regions and people using the knowledge we have gained later on.
Happy reading and a happy new year!