Ancestral journeys. The peopling of Europe from the first venturers to the Vikings

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Jean Manco
Thames & Hudson
£19.94

ISBN 9780500051788

‘It is a tangled web our ancestors have woven’, Jean Manco writes. ‘For the general public the new views may not fit treasured national myths.’ The interplay between research agendas and politics is always fraught, especially when the topic is identity. Language barriers and nationalist ideology have interfered with the study of the peopling of Europe, and the emergence of nations, for centuries. At its worst it has served to support the ideology of the ‘nation state’ as a culturally uniform geographic entity.
Manco sets out to present the current state of research and offers a truly interdisciplinary survey, drawing on the latest in archaeology, linguistics, genetics and related disciplines. While archaeological discoveries continue to be essential, some of the biggest breakthroughs have been in the fields of genetics and linguistics. These are covered with considerable skill in this compact study. These disciplines have helped loosen the stranglehold of the anti-migrationist theories of the last generation, so that migration is once again seen as the dominant driver for technological change.

Manco starts with a short piece on methodologies, and tackles the migration controversy head-on. This is followed by fifteen chapters on the peopling of Europe in broadly chronological order. She provides a great deal of background information, and deals with issues quickly and concisely. Myths are pleasingly dismantled in rapid order. Is there residual Neanderthal DNA in the European genome? Categorically, no. Are the Basque people a Palaeolithic relic population? No, they migrated into western Europe with the first farmers.

The fragility of human settlement in Europe is a strong theme for much of the book. One of the most extraordinary tales is how c. 6200 BC a huge postglacial lake on the east coast of north America burst into the Atlantic, plunging temperatures downwards and decimating the farming and foraging communities of Europe. Another cold period from around 4200 to 3800 BC left settlements abandoned through large swaths of Europe. Manco repeatedly makes the point that in these conditions even relatively small population migrations would have had a significant impact on the composition of the inhabitants of the continent, and on subsequent DNA. There is no need for a theory of conquest for the replacement of one group of people by another, as was the prevalent view in the 1950s and earlier.

Manco covers a huge amount of research in this book, with a particular focus on interdisciplinary studies. Readers may already be familiar with the work of J.P. Mallory, professor emeritus at Queen’s University, Belfast. One of Mallory’s more important theses is that the Indo-European migration to Europe spread long after the first farmers and was linked to metallurgy. This argument was further developed by Andrew Sharratt as part of the ‘Secondary Products Revolution’. Sharratt argues that the fundamental advantage possessed by Indo-European-speakers was their technology, especially their use of animals for traction and transport, which allowed them to produce a significant food surplus and with it a higher population, specialism and an aristocratic warrior class.
Closer to home, Manco recounts how the first farmers in Britain and Ireland were dairy herders, a later farming technology than beef farming, showing evidence including archaeology (milk fat deposits in pottery sherds), the late slaughter age of cattle and bovine DNA to prove this point. But the big changes in understanding, to my mind, must be the whole issue of the Celts. It has long been argued that the Celts settled in Ireland, Britain and Iberia in the Iron Age, but this view has now been comprehensively challenged. Manco gives a good summary of the archaeological and linguistic evidence that supports the current equation of Celtic with the Bell Beaker material culture found in archaeology. She also includes the recent ‘Celtic from the West’ hypotheses of Cunliffe, Koch et al. She provides good detail on the issue of multiple waves of Celtic migration into Britain and Ireland, using both archaeology and genetics, with the last significant group linked to La Tène culture spreading from northern Britain into northern Ireland around 300 BC. I would have liked more, but that is in no way a criticism, as her book is covering a grand sweep of the whole continent.

After dealing with the great migration of the Germanic-speaking peoples at the end of the western Roman Empire, and the Slavs in eastern Europe in the medieval period, Manco concludes with the Vikings. It’s probable that, like many other migrations before them, the Vikings settled in predominantly male groups, marrying local women who maintained their own language. She quotes Gearóid MacEoin, professor emeritus at NUI Galway, that in this way Vikings become French-speaking Normans in the twelfth century and Irish-speaking Gaill in the fourteenth century. The complexities that this poses for linguistics and genetics are naturally significant, but instructive for many earlier time-frames. Genetic research has already done much to transform our understanding of the past, but one feels after reading this book that we are merely witnessing the earliest conclusions, with much yet to come.

So, what next? Manco touches on where research is likely to focus. There is a significant lack of sequenced ancient DNA. In other words, we need to dig up more bodies and extract DNA so that we can start building a better understanding of what existed in the past, and how that relates to surviving genetics today. There are projects currently at work across Europe, including tentative plans in Ireland. This is a major step that must be undertaken before we can deliver the sort of evidence necessary to derive new, and more detailed, conclusions. In short, this book is an excellent guide to what scholars now know about our earliest European ancestors. The result is a far more complex and exciting account than hitherto possible.

Reviewed By
Brian Donovan

Brian Donovan is CEO of Eneclann Ltd and Business Development Director of DC Thomson Family History Ireland.

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