New Light on Old Britons
Wednesday, 30 October, 2019
Our understanding of human ancestry has greatly advanced in recent years. Extraordinary developments in genome analysis have permitted whole hominin genomes to be reconstructed from small fragments of the past, paralleled by advances in the methods of population genetics to infer ancestry and migration from the analysis and comparison of the genotypes of modern populations. New insights into the behaviour and capacities of earlier hominins can now be inferred from bones, stones and the evidence of the early biological and climatic environment.
An earlier Galton symposium reviewed some of these developments on the broadest geographical and theoretical canvas. This symposium has a more focused aim; to demonstrate what the latest genetic, archaeological and historical research tells us specifically about the peopling of Britain and Ireland from the earliest times into the early historical period, about which plenty of exciting controversies have arisen and unresolved questions remain. Their position as relatively recent islands off the ultimate edge of the continent puts them into a special position in respect of the great movements of peoples in the past – terminus for some, beyond the reach of others – and we have some special questions of our own.
The approach taken here is chronological, to begin at the beginning, and is thereby also necessarily methodological. The earliest evidence of humans in Britain – transient footprints on a beach – is beyond the reach of genetic methods, and indeed offers no direct evidence of people at all.
Puzzles include the old questions as to whether the agriculture of the Neolithic revolution was powered by the arrival of farmers or by knowledge of farming, how far Anglo Saxons replaced the native Britons, whether the Celts were a people or merely a linguistic expression.
Plenty of surprises have come to light; that the well known specimen Cheddar Man may have been about 10,000 years old and male, but was not pale skinned, and the notion that nomads from Eurasia had replaced most of the ancestry of the British population by 2000 BC: a steppe too far for some. Several major projects have deployed a variety of techniques and the talents of dozens of researchers. Our speakers will bring us up to date on the latest synthesis of our diverse origins.