In history getting labels right is important

This is a post about history in general but it applies just as much to the history of science. I have over the years written several posts about the problems of attributing nationalities or even countries of origins to historical figures and this post discusses another example of this, where the attributions are about ahistorical as you can get. What is it this time that has piqued my ire? It was the title of an article in The Guardian that contains historical attributions that are ahistorical, anachronistic and quite frankly xenophobic.

Did Dutch hordes kill off the early Britons who started Stonehenge?

Strong words, strong claims, so what is wrong with this title? The article is about the spread into Britain from the continent of the so-called Beaker folk, a European wide Neolithic-Bronze Age culture that existed from around 2900 BCE to 1800 BCE. Archaeologists and prehistorians define cultures through characteristic behaviours or artefacts. The Beaker culture is so named because of the habit of burying their dead with distinctive ceramic pots or beakers. This cultural group moved into Britain around 2500 BCE and the article claims that DNA analysis has shown that the previous inhabitants disappear out of the genetic record to be replaced by the newcomers. All well and good so what’s my beef?

First off, the title suggests that the original population were killed off by invading Europeans but the previous population were, like the Beaker people, themselves European immigrants, as had and have been all of the inhabitants of the British Isles. It is not known when exactly the Neolithic culture that started building Stonehenge arrived in Britain but they were with certainty not Britons! One moment there! If they are living in Britain they are Britons, right? Wrong!

The name Britons for inhabitants of this island derives from the reports of the fourth-century Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia (that’s Marseille). Pytheas supposedly circumnavigated the island and referred to its inhabitants as Pretani and the island as Prettanikē; these are the origins of the words Briton and Britain. The words he is using are thought to be transliterations into Greek of the names used by the inhabitants that Pytheas met, who are not even Beaker people but members of a later wave of immigrants the Celts. We don’t have a name for the Neolithic folk who started building Stonehenge but they were not Britons.

We have the same problem with the Beaker people being called Dutch in the title. There were settlements of the Beaker people all over Europe but they thought to have originated in what is now Spain. The group that crossed the Channel onto the British Island are said by the historical geneticists to have come from what is now the Northern Netherlands but that in no way makes them Dutch.

The Dutch are, like the English, a Low German dialect speaking Germanic folk. They originated in what is today Southern Scandinavia and Northern Germany and because of climate change moved southwards into the Netherlands between 850 and 750 BCE so once again long after the Beaker culture had died out.

What we actually have is one wave of immigrants from the European continent being supplanted by another wave of immigrants from the European continent. The former are not Britons and the latter are not Dutch and to claim that they were, is a massive historical distortion and has, as I said at the beginning a strong stench of xenophobia. The British Isles has on and off, since about 42,000 years BP (before the present), been occupied by successive waves of immigrants from the European continent the last being the Normans, a Norse culture residing in France, in 1066 CE.

Almost all areas in the world have similar histories of habitation and historians or people writing historical articles should be very, very careful when attaching labels to peoples or geographical areas in their writings.


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8 responses to “In history getting labels right is important

  1. “historical attributions that are ahistorical, anachronistic”

    Back when Piltdown Man was believed to be real, there was a book about him: The First Englishman. One imagines him coming out of his cave in waistcoat and bowler. 🙂

  2. “The British Isles has on and off, since about 42,000 years BP (before the present), been occupied by successive waves of immigrants from the European continent the last being the Normans, a Norse culture residing in France, in 1066 CE.”

    What I find interesting is that they spoke French. It wasn’t that long before that they were speaking Old Norse. It also seems rather strange for conquerors to adopt the tongue of the conquered. Maybe what happened is that there were only a few, powerful Norsemen, and most of the Normans were French people who had been living there before.

    I recall reading about a study which claimed that not that many Anglo-Saxons came to England; rather, it was a few, powerful people. Most of the population was genetically the same before and after.

    I lived in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony, the source of the Angles and Saxons) for a long time. I’ve also travelled often to England and worked there a couple of years. English people—“old” English people, not recent Asian immigrants or whatever—look quite different than people (again, the “old” population) in northern Germany. Especially the children. It is really easy to guess where someone is from. On a ferry, I see that my guess is almost always right, confirmed when I hear them speaking. (And I’m talking about facial features, not fashion or dental hygiene.)

    On the other hand, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands looks very Dutch, but for generations his family has been marrying Germans. Maybe it is the food. (One notices right away that the Dutch people look different. For one thing, they are much taller than all other populations, although presumably they can’t be genetically that different. One thing I remember from my time working there is that it was common for adults to drink milk at lunch.)

    • DNA analysis has shown that the majority of people living in the east of England share a common heritage with those living on the Atlantic coast of Northern Germany and Denmark

      • Next time I am in Blighty, I’ll see if I notice a difference between the people in the east of England (presumably similar to those on the west coast of Germany and Denmark) and those elsewhere.

  3. Matt Regan

    I’ve always liked Flashman’s remark that if one objects to all the conquests/migrations/invasions of the past on moral grounds, one must also admit that “Ur of the Chaldees would be a damned crowded place by now.”

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 03, Vol. #41 | Whewell's Ghost

  5. Jeb

    “It also seems rather strange for conquerors to adopt the tongue of the conquered.”

    In Gaul, incoming rulers appear to have taken over existing imperial estates and were still recieving tax revenue from the civitates. Its not ethnicity here that is the deciding factor but continuity. Kings are taking over landed estates.

    In contrast Anglo Saxon settlement in Britian is notable different, clear lack of hierarchy in the settlement pattern until royal sites emerge in the 7th century. Ethnicity rather than continuity with late Roman society becomes the deciding factor.

    Social and economic factors that make the difference here.

    Gaul you can move and adopt into a pre existing coporate identity, inheriting tennants, slaves and an administrative class from a pre-existing system. In England that situation seems to be notably different and here ethnicity becomes the defining factor.

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