Did England have an Ancient Growth Spurt?

The Times published an article this morning which serves as a cautionary lesson in irresponsible archaeological reporting. The article’s problems are subtle, but important.

The article describes a new study of medieval population demographics outside Winchester, in England. I haven’t read the study yet (I intend to, though), and it’s probably very good. This post isn’t about the study itself, but rather how the study is reported by The Times.

The article’s abstract caught my eye:

The population of Winchester, England’s ancient capital in Saxon times and before that a prominent city of Roman Britain, retained a remarkably homogeneous genetic structure for many centuries.

‘Homogeneous genetic structure’ — this is an article about genetics. Perhaps there has been a new study of ancient DNA? That’s exciting, and I clicked through to the article eagerly.

The article describes the project: about 3000 medieval skeletons were examined, and this evidence was compared with genetic information from a recent (2015) study of genetics in Britain. That 2015 study was of modern DNA, not ancient DNA, but it made some interesting (and controversial) arguments about the genetic origins of the modern English population. But as I read the article, I began to ask: was there actually a new genetic study of any of the 3000 medieval skeletons?

As far as I can tell, this new project didn’t do any genetic tests on the medieval skeletons. If it did, this article makes no mention of it. Instead, as the Times describes it it did two things; it looked at skeletal height, and it looked at the types of objects people were buried with, but not the genetics of the bones:

[Biddle] noted that these settlers of the Fifth to Seventh centuries “were found with their characteristic weapons and jewellery in cemeteries in the countryside around Winchester. The men were tall incomers, the women much more like, and probably descended from, their Roman-British predecessors”.

The article, however, does its best to blend the results of the unrelated 2015 genetic study together with this new study of artefacts and of height, as though they’re one and the same thing. Note how the article slides between the new study’s analysis of medieval bones, the 2015 study of modern genetics, and the evidence from artefacts and height (emphasis added):

More than 3,000 burials were examined, dating from the 3rd to the 16th centuries, “unique in providing a continuous chronological window rather than a series of isolated studies,” the authors say. The trends match those in a broad-based survey of genetic structure published in Nature (Vol.519: 309-314, 2015), which in turn slots into a wider European study.

The pan-European study involved more than 6,000 people [note: this is the NATURE study — we’ve changed gears without notice], and suggested that the genetic contribution to southeastern England from Anglo-Saxon migrations was less than half. The region had received substantial pre-Roman immigration, while elsewhere in the UK there was a range of genetically different groups rather than the generalised “Celtic” population of myth.

Beyond the Roman walls of Venta Belgarum, which underlies medieval and modern Winchester, were cemeteries from which Professor Martin Biddle’s Winchester Research Unit has recovered about 700 burials, ending around AD 400. There were also “2,000 or so medieval burials excavated around Winchester Cathedral, dating from about AD 700 onwards”, the professor said. “The problem has been filling the gap between AD 400 and 700. Dr Stuckert’s work on the skeletons of the Germanic immigrants has done this.”

He noted that these settlers of the Fifth to Seventh centuries “were found with their characteristic weapons and jewellery in cemeteries in the countryside around Winchester. The men were tall incomers, the women much more like, and probably descended from, their Roman-British predecessors”.

Dr Stuckert reported that she “was able to isolate a small, predominantly male group that was statistically different, and whose number increased through time. One of these factors may have been the introduction of a small, predominantly, but not exclusively, male group of foreigners whose numbers were augmented by a steady trickle of new, mostly male, immigrants as the years progressed.

Nowhere, in fact, is the link between the tall men with weapons and the genetic evidence (from modern populations) of ‘Anglo-Saxon migrants’ actually demonstrated. Instead, the author relies on juxtaposition to suggest a causal link — thousands of bones are studies, thousands of genetic samples taken, and tall bodies with weapons are labeled ‘incomers’. How could one argue with such implicit narrative logic?

Examined closely, however, these claims by The Times hold little water. Height, it’s true, is partly genetic — but it’s also dietary, and you cannot simply argue that the skeletal changes in early medieval England are purely a product of new DNA without actually studying that DNA (something that is becoming easier and easier as laboratory methods improve, so there’s less excuse these days for not attempting it and relying on imprecise skeletal proxies instead). Similarly, the kinds of burial practices people use, and the styles of jewelry or weapons they choose to bury with their dead, are products of culture, not DNA — and while people with different genetics sometimes have different cultural practices, one has only to look around at one’s neighbors (or, at anything written by anthropologists since the second half of the 20th century!) to realize that culture and DNA are independent.

It used to be common to blend these notions together. Race scientists of the 19th century believed that each nationality had its own biology, its own language, and its own cultural practices. This idea culminated most tragically in the violence of WWII, but can also be seen more cheerfully in Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’ attraction, in the World Expositions, and in our continuing expectation that someone’s bodily appearance will tell us something about their cultural habits or skills (the stereotype that Asians are good at math, etc). You can also spot it in anthropological and archaeological interpretations of the 19th century, during which racial theorists would measure skulls to determine how intelligent dead persons had been, what race they belonged to, and what culture they had practiced and language they had spoken — as though all this could be traced back to someone’s bones! In the mid-20th century, this developed into a school of study called ‘culture history’ which has long since been abandoned by English-speaking archaeologists because it failed to adequately explain the evidence in the ground and didn’t match with the ways human societies actually work. These are old ideas, debunked ideas, and nevertheless ideas that continue to haunt the way we imagine the past and the present. (Both Bonnie Effros and Sam Lucy have written good books about the ways these ideas continue to haunt modern analyses of the early middle ages.)

This article falls into that old tradition in the way it talks about genetics and culture, but it’s particularly misleading in that it implies that we can study genetic change without actually looking at DNA, just by counting weapons in graves or measuring skeletons and performing a bit of statistical magic on the results. That’s not how genetics works! And that’s not what this research has actually discovered.

If you read The Times’ article too quickly, you’ll walk away with the impression that science (genetics) has proven that there was an invasion of Germanic men in the early middle ages, who took native wives and changed the genetics of modern England up until the present. This is exactly what the article says has been proven. But in fact, no such scientific study occurred — this is purely a subjective interpretation of the assumed origins of bones and weapons, and the methods being used for that interpretation are old culture historical theories that archaeology as a discipline has long-since abandoned. But these old ideas have been papered over, in this article, with the words ‘It’s science!’ and ‘Genetics!’ in an attempt to make them sound new, exciting, and more valid than they are.

The concluding sentence of the article makes the stakes of this deception clear:

‘Professor Biddle said: “The results of archaeology and of genetics, independent of each other, reveal the same story. Thus the English people emerged.”’

People today are increasingly questioning the scientifically proven fact that all humans are essentially the same. Political movements encourage us to make much of our differences, to doubt whether immigrants can assimilate to new cultural settings, and to question whether multicultural societies can exist without collapsing into violence. In this article, The Times sides with the latter position: that migration in the early middle ages was a violent affair, whose stakes were the very genetic heritage of the English people. This is fundamentally a political position, which the article attempts to justify with science — but the science isn’t there, and the history isn’t there, and the archaeology moved on from this 40 years ago; the story it tells is, ultimately, rooted in political views about migration, not the scientific evidence archaeologists have recovered from the bones of the past peoples.