English or German
Apartheid' slashed Celtic genes in early England
* 00:01 19 July 2006 * NewScientist.com news service * Gaia Vince
A system of racial segregation imposed by early Anglo-Saxon invaders in England may have massively boosted the breeding of the Germanic interlopers, much to the detriment of the native Celtic race, researchers claim in a new study.
Genetic analysis of men in modern-day central England shows that more than half of them possess a Y-chromosome that can be traced to a Germanic region – what is now Germany, Holland and Denmark.
Historians argue that fewer than 200,000 Anglo-Saxons invaded the population of about 2 million Celtic Britons during the 5th century. All things being equal, this number should account for just 10% of the gene pool being Anglo-Saxon.
In an attempt to explain this anomaly, Mark Thomas at University College London, UK, and colleagues came up with a theory that an apartheid social structure benefited the people - and therefore the genes - of the Anglo-Saxon race at the expense of the native Celtic genes.
Evidence of the apartheid system can be found in ancient texts such as the 7th century laws of Ine, Thomas says, which place a greater value on the life of an Anglo-Saxon. For example, these laws stated that if an Anglo-Saxon was killed, the "blood money", or "Wergild", payable to the family was up to five times more than the fine payable for the life of a native Celt. Apartheid alone
In societies where one race is socially and economically favoured over another - like the Anglo-Saxons were over the Celts - the dominant race is likely to have more children and these children are more likely to survive to a healthy adulthood. Rather than interbreeding with the native population, the invading Germanic tribes actually out-bred them, Thomas believes.
He used data produced by other researchers who had worked with similar apartheid-like societies to see whether apartheid alone could have led to the surprisingly high numbers of Anglo-Saxon derived genes in modern Englishmen. In Kenya, for example, researchers have found a four-fold difference in birth rate between high and low-status nomadic Gabbra pastoralists.
Thomas then applied the data to a computer model to statistically analyse whether the Anglo-Saxon Y-chromosome would exceed 50% of the population over 15 generations. And his simulation found this would indeed be the case. Alternative interpretations
"We put an idea that comes from historical research about apartheid into a computer model and have been able to show that the archaeologists and geneticists were both right. The disagreement can be settled by our finding that an apartheid-like society was set up by the invaders around 1600 years ago."
However, Chris Tyler-Smith, an evolutionary geneticist at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, says that although the apartheid theory is a "reasonable interpretation of the data, it is not necessarily the only possible interpretation". And Tyler-Smith worries that the conclusions the group came to are heavily dependent on data generated by previous groups, and involve a lot of hard-to-prove assumptions.
"But it shows the contribution that genetics can make to history and archaeology," he adds. "It would be good to give these suggestions to historians and see how they might use them."