Today, when the Irish were Egyptians ... The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Perhaps a very few of you remember a 1940 song, Oh, the
Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago. Now a New York Science Times
article by Nicholas Wade looks at research on the settlement of Britain -- especially
work of geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's recent book Origins of the
British shows how the Irish really were, not Egyptians, but Turks -- and not all
that long ago.
Let's begin with the coming of the last Ice Age, twenty thousand years ago. The British
islands were connected to Europe. Then ice came, covered the land, and created a genetic
tabula rasa. So if we ask who the forebears of the today's Britons were, we have
to begin about sixteen thousand years ago when Earth warmed, ice melted, and the first
British population arrived.
Now geneticists and linguists trace DNA and language to identify the earliest Britons. The
first major immigration appears to've been from the Basque region of Northern Spain, with a
few arrivals from areas around the Black sea. And they'd all come through present-day Turkey,
fifty thousand years ago. These hunter-gatherers walked the Atlantic coastline all the way
into Britain. They formed the Celtic language, and they lived through a second
smaller ice age, twelve thousand years ago.
After that, melting raised ocean levels three hundred feet. That water separated Britain
from Europe and Ireland from Britain. When a new wave of immigrants came about ten
thousand years ago, they were mostly from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, where
farming had recently been invented. They brought with them, not only farming, but also an
advanced ability as sailors.
So, many of the Irish, and other Britons as well, really were Egyptians long ago. But what
about the invaders who followed them? When the Romans came, they remarked that a population
of Belgae had already moved in. Those were the tribes from which Belgium takes its name.
Now it seems that the Belgae shaped the early English language. (I remember the eerie feeling
I had in Belgium when I had to determine, at each moment, whether my host had switched between
Flemish and English -- they sounded so alike.)
Later invasions by Angles, Saxons, and Vikings seem to've had less effect on an established
population than we'd once thought. None left more than five percent of its DNA in Britain.
Even the Normans made only a small dent on British DNA. Oppenheimer argues that culture is
independent of genes: The Norman impact was far more cultural than genetic. By the way, the
genetic difference between the Irish and the rest of Britain is minute.
Of course, the large genetic imprint on us all is African. Modern humans emerged from Africa
twice. First, 120,000 years ago, only to retreat during an earlier Ice Age. The second
emigration made it into Europe 50,000 years ago. So maybe the words of the song should be,
"All the Irish were Ugandans long ago."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
N. Wade, A United Kingdom? Maybe. New York Times, Science Times,
Tuesday, March 6, 2007, pp. D1 & D4.
A very useful link is the
Bradshaw Foundation site. It features Stephen Oppenheimer and
provides a very useful animation of the migration of modern humans out of Africa titled,
"Journey of Mankind."
To see measurements made by Edouard Bard and his coworkers, showing the rise of sea
level during the past 18,000 years,
Image adapted from Oppenheimer's online animation of human migration.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.