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Saxons, Vikings and Celts - History, Archeology and Genomics all together in one!

I was pleasantly surprised recently at the University of Calgary Bookstore where I found a significant number of new books on genomics written for the keen, but non-specialist reader. A day later, I was in the Chapters.indigo bookstore, and they too had an array of new books in this field. I thought to myself what a significant change from a few years ago when all the books seemed to be on quantum astronomy. It would be interesting to track the changes in what is deemed by the public as the “cool” science at any one time. The rise of Biotechnology is certainly something predicted as early as 1993 by Paul Kennedy in his book “Preparing for the 21st Century”.

Admittedly, if I were to look at my own personal library, I find books on genetics that date back to such classics as James Watson’s 1968 book “The Double Helix”, John Gibbin’s 1985 “In Search of the Double Helix” and Matt Ridley’s 1999 “Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters” There probably has always been great genetics books out there, but right now the bookstores stock and feature a bigger selection of topical books on the subject.

Book Cover ImageNeedless to say, I came away from those bookstores loaded down with my summer reading. As difficult as it was to make the choice, the first book I spent time on was Bryan Sykes book Saxons, Vikings and Celts. My interest in this book was related to my initial fascination with the BBC series called The Blood of the Vikings. Released in 2001, I found the series to be a perfect summation of the power of genetics to solve problems in other areas of inquiry.

When the BBC presented The Blood of the Vikings, they had an amazing web presence including links and teacher resources. Unfortunately, that information has all been removed. My initial thoughts as I began to read about Bryan Sykes were that he might have been involved in the BBC project as well. When I checked that information, I was mistaken. The lead researcher for The Blood of the Vikings was David Goldstein.

In both projects, the initial work involved blood samples. Ultimately as the technology changed, Sykes was able to collect samples somewhat like they do on the CSI shows. He describes the technique as a miniature bottle brush gently rubbed over the surface of the inner cheek. The sample is then self-contained and the DNA will remain good for analysis under a variety of harsh conditions. His team found a great deal more compliance when he eliminated the need to take blood.

Both Goldstein and Sykes looked at markers on the Y-chromosome to track the male contribution over time. The Y-chromosome is passed on from father to son, and by looking at the mutations in the zones of redundant DNA, paternal clans could be developed and mapped. The Sykes team also looked at mitochondrial DNA to track the maternal clans. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on from mother to every child, but ultimately measures the DNA history as it forms a continuous line through all the females. The major significance of tracking both sexes is that Sykes could differentiate between the situation where migrants came as families as opposed to males coming as invaders, killing the men and stealing the women. Through Sykes research, our perceptions of the Vikings will change considerably as he has determined that they must have come as settlers bringing with them their families.

A great many interesting conclusions are drawn for the extensive work of Bryan Sykes’ team. Perhaps the most significant finding is that the genetic trail indicates that the majority of people living in Britain and Ireland can be traced back to the Neolithic inhabitants of the islands and are a direct line from the original Picts. Sykes spends a good deal of his book analyzing the historical record of invasions and occupations from the Romans through to the Vikings and Normans. He finds very little influence of these more recent immigrations to the British Isles.

Bryan Sykes through his work at the University of Oxford has set up a company called Oxford Ancestors which is a world leading provider of DNA-based services for use in personal ancestry research. Their services and products provide the scientific insight that allows individuals to explore and discover their own ancient genetic roots. In this era of interest in genealogy, this is of significant interest to the public.

I personally very much enjoyed this book as it linked history, archaeology and genomics all in one very compelling and readable book.

Saxons, Vikings and Celts - History, Archeology and Genomics all together in one!

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