Wearin' of the gene

The Baltimore Sun

What is it that sets the Irish apart? It must be their Basque heritage. That, and the awful truth that there's barely any difference between them and the English.

All those centuries of fighting and religion and malarkey and stiff upper lips, and now it turns out that there's little that's Anglo-Saxon about the English and even less that's Celtic about the land of St. Patrick. Research on male and female chromosomes by an Oxford geneticist named Stephen Oppenheimer shows, he says, that the dominant ancestral strain on both sides of the Irish Sea has its roots in a migration from northern Spain about 16,000 years ago. None of the waves that have swept the British Isles since then - Celtic, Germanic, Roman, Viking, Norman - has had much more than a minor impact, genetically speaking.

The same, by the way, holds true for the Welsh and the Scots - who to the untrained ear of a wary American walking into a bar on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow today might seem to be still speaking Basque, with the odd wee recognizable word thrown in just to confuse things.

History, though, insists that the Glaswegians were speaking a dialect of English called Scots as long ago as the Middle Ages; Dr. Oppenheimer, in an essay published last fall in Prospect magazine, says genetic research now suggests that English is much older than previously thought, easily predating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 5th and 6th centuries. Statistical analysis of languages by geneticists is all the rage, by the way - among geneticists. Linguists haven't been amused.

But that's a side issue. Languages, even old ones, come and go. Some Celts made their way to Ireland, for instance, and something about their language and culture must have been a good fit. They left their stamp; they just didn't leave very many genes behind. Styles of decoration and metal-working came and went, too, in antiquity, but anthropologists now think that had less to do with great migrations of tribes and more to do with the common-sense notion that fashion is fashion, and people have a way of picking up on it.

In a way, this seems like a theory of immobility. What's here is here and it's more stubbornly here than you might suppose. Yet in terms of the world's populations, the English and Irish are newcomers. People had already been living in the Americas for thousands of years by the time the glaciers melted enough to allow a roving bunch of Basques to move northward to what was then a single piece of land separated from France by a river. (And somehow jai alai turned into cricket, or rugby or something, along the way.)

But the story of a people is not the story of a person. Geneticists at England's University of Leicester have been busy, too, and they've discovered chromosomal evidence suggesting that Thomas Jefferson had a Jewish ancestor, most likely a Sephardic Jew from Spain or Portugal. (If only fellow Virginian George Allen had known that when he was botching his Senate re-election campaign last year, he might not have handled the question of his Jewish inheritance quite so clumsily.)

And what is it about Spain, anyway? The Basques, of course, came from there, and apparently the Celts did, too, after an earlier sojourn in the Middle East. Interestingly, the biggest group of people trying to move to what the French still insist is the "Anglo-Saxon" United States are also of Spanish origin, though a bit more recent.

People are wanderers. They mix it up a lot. Whole nations don't transform themselves - or if they do, it's pretty rare - but there's plenty of to-and-fro to make life interesting. And of course there's a lot more of it here than in Europe or Africa or Asia. Ethnicity anywhere is more about culture and identification than bloodlines. St. Patrick's Day is a day to tap into Celtic heritage; it's not a day to be Celtic - because hardly anyone is.

Thanks to modern science, your genes give you away. And if you care to know, you're probably not who you think you are.

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