The Tribes of Britain by David Miles

Did old Etonians eat their relatives? Archaeology brings up fascinating questions about the history and nature of our mongrel nation. Along with genetics, as A C Grayling discovers, it can overturn some of our most tenaciously held national myths
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The Independent Culture

Miles is an archaeologist who has plied his trowel over most of Britain and many parts of the world beyond. He has an engaging talent not just for writing clear, friendly narrative - no mean feat in canvassing thousands of years of history in 400 pages - but for selecting entertaining jewels from his treasury of fact. "Did Old Etonians eat their relatives?" he asks, in allusion to signs of cut-marks and teeth on human bones found at an archaeological site near the famous college. A school exercise book from the Roman camp at Vindolanda in north England contains a misspelled quotation from Virgil's Aeneid, with across it the schoolmaster's irritated comment: "segniter" meaning "slack". The seventh-century AD tomb containing the "Prittlewell Prince", of whom only a tooth and his shoe buckles (between them showing how his body was laid out) remain, was found to contain French gold coins, a flagon from Byzantium, a Coptic bowl, and an enamelled Irish dish, showing how globalised the world was even then.

Great Britain - the biggest island of our archipelago - was once part of the European continent. The Thames was a tributary of the Rhine, whose waters traversed a great plain where the North Sea now heaves. Melting ice caps and retreating glaciers raised sea levels to the point where they flooded the land bridge, a catastrophic event that happened more than once at the close of ice ages. The earliest human occupations of Britain doubtless occurred during the periods of connection, though only the southernmost part of the island was habitable. Even today the north of Britain is springing - very slowly - upwards as a result of being freed from the huge weight of ice that once buried Ben Nevis.

Miles begins his story in those unimaginably distant prehistorical times, and traces it steadily to the present. The prologue is spoken by the "Red Lady of Paviland", a 26,000-year-old ochre-stained skeleton discovered in 1826, the first human fossil ever discovered. Predictably disliking the idea that humans existed before the Creation (putatively dated to about 4,000 BC), and equally predictably interpreting the bones' coloration as proof that the Red Lady was a scarlet woman, the then Dean of Westminster Abbey claimed that the skeleton must have belonged to a prostitute attached to the Roman army. Radiocarbon dating has since placed the skeleton accurately in the period when humans first intermittently visited Britain during its avatar as a peninsula, in pursuit of the herds that grazed across the great plains now under the North Sea. Science also showed that the Red Lady was a young male, five feet eight inches tall, strong, but not a Neanderthal; he was Homo sapiens sapiens. His bones show that he liked seafood as well as meat.

More to the point, his bones yielded enough DNA to show a match with the commonest present-day European lineage. That puts a genetic cat among the pigeons, for one of the great questions about the history of Europe is: are its peoples the descendants of Upper Palaeolithic hunters like the Red Lady, or do they stem from Neolithic Middle Eastern farmers who were first to domesticate plants and animals?

Although Miles's book is not exclusively, or even very much, about what genetics tells us historically, there is a sub-text on the matter, which is Miles's scepticism about whether genetics helps as much as some have hoped it would. For example: families in the south-east of England today are genetically related to the Germanic peoples of north-western Europe, especially those in the present-day Netherlands. Does this confirm the standard view that invasions from that part of the continent drove their forerunners, the Celts, into the west and north of the island? Or could the genetic relationship be explained by long-term gradual contacts between south-eastern England and the north-western continent, stretching back to eras when land bridges joined them? By itself the evidence is ambiguous, and established archaeological and historical methods remain necessary to the enquiry. Miles is a gradualist, and this theme dominates his book.

Archaeological and historical methods are what Miles most focuses upon in taking readers from the remote past to pre-Roman times, then to the Roman period, then to the tumultuous epoch following the Romans' departure, when (as the monk Gildas put it) "foul hordes of Picts and Scots, like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock" began to prey on the weakened land, obliging Rome's native successors to ask the warlike Saxons for help, thus inadvertently succumbing to a more successful invader. But Miles argues that this did not happen quite as once believed. Saxon fighters came, yes; but their "invasion" was more an immigration than a conquest, assimilating to the local native population over time. That is what the archaeology of Berinsfield in Oxfordshire suggests, as does the linguistic evidence of place names. Though the culture of south-east England became Saxon, says Miles, "genetically perhaps two-thirds of the population were of British descent".

The next chapter of the story is a bloody one, for it tells of the Vikings or Norsemen, who definitely came in unpeaceable guise. Their coastal raids, beginning in the eighth century, were so ferocious that contemporary records said they were prefigured by whirlwinds, flashes of lightning and "fiery dragons flying in the air". In due course Vikings settled in parts of northern England, some bringing Irish wives and slaves with them. Eventually a second wave of Norsemen, this time as the Christianised Normans, arrived - 1066 and all that - and built their great occupiers' castles across the land to dominate it. They were the last military invaders, though far from the last immigrants to add their mixture to the British stock.

Miles proceeds to point out that our islands not only accepted many successive waves of incomers, invaders, occupiers and immigrants, but was a massive exporter of peoples also. This happened most especially in the days of empire, but it happened earlier too. Seventeenth-century Poland had as many as 40,000 Scots living in it (Szkot there meant peddler or commercial traveller); the name Gordon became Gordonowski, Ramsay became Ramze, the city of Gdansk has a quarter called Stary Szkoty (Old Scotland), and the Poles still have the expression skapy jak Szkot denoting "mean as a Scot".

In the 17th century, over 300,000 English, Welsh and Scots migrated to Ireland in the wake of the accession of King James I and IV. Ireland was then severely depopulated, and most of the new immigrants settled in Ulster. Later Ireland was to become a great exporter of people in its turn, in the 19th century particularly, during the first quarter of which no fewer than 1.5m Irish men and women emigrated to America.

It is always interesting to note how the history of Britain in the 19th century is in effect the history of the world, and Miles's account recognises that fact; but true to his aim he keeps his eye on those whom the country's wealth and industry drew inwards, adding to the tribes already here: Jews, Chinese, people from all over Europe, and increasingly from all over the Empire. In the chapter entitled "New Britons", Miles chronicles the immigration of the 20th century, and the ensuing opportunities and difficulties. These latter have sometimes been severe and are never far from the public mind; but as Miles shows, in a hopeful and tolerant conclusion, Britain continues to need immigrants (we are short of about 166,000 babies each year to maintain the population, apart from the losses incurred by emigration), and their arrival is a continuation of the long saga of comings and joinings that constitute British history.

Plenty of those comings were attended by problems; today's second- and third-generation Muslim youth do not pose unprecedented questions. But the long outcome of Britain's history as a perpetual land of immigrants is, on the whole, an optimistic one, so Miles's account of it is not only highly enjoyable and instructive, but very timely.