So it’s been a while; I blame two things.  Firstly, a tiny matter called e-x-a-m-s and secondly, the complete and utter death of my computer a week before said exams happened.  Computer is being fixed tomorrow hopefully; meanwhile I am happily installed on a friend’s laptop, enjoying exam freedom by listening to the new Coldplay album Viva la Vida, which i cycled through torrential rain to buy at 9am this morning!  I’m pretty impressed so far!

Revision did interrupt my reading a little, and as I predicted I haven’t got as far through my bookshelf of books as I’d hoped, though I did buy several new books from the Oxfam Book shop in Cambridge which I’ve managed to eat through – more on those in the coming days!

One book I have been reading all term is Stephen Oppenheimer’s Out Of Eden.  It’s taking me a while because it’s non-fiction and pretty dense in facts and figures in places.  Stephen Oppenheimer is a geneticist, and his work basically sets out to synthesise genetic evidence for pre-historic human migrations out of Africa with archaeological, climatic, geological and anthropological evidence.  Out of Eden argues that everyone on the planet today is descended from a single group of early Homo Sapiens who left Africa about 85,000 years ago.  He then traces the progress of this group as different splinter branches colonised different parts of the world.

I am just under half-way through and will hopefully soldier on and finish it at some point, but it will be a long term project.  I was slightly put off, however, by a discussion I had with by Director of Studies about Stephen Oppenheimer.  My Director of Studies is a Celticist specialising in Medieval Welsh and Celtic Philology, amongst other things, and I mentioned to him that I was reading a Stephen Oppenheimer book because the other Oppenheimer book I have on my shelf to read, The Origins of The British, discusses the relative Celtic versus English ancestry of Britain, and argues that this divide goes much further back into pre-history than we might imagine, and I thought this might be something he was interested in.  As soon as I mentioned Stephen Oppenheimer’s name, however, my Director of Studies immediately exclaimed ‘Don’t talk to me about that man! He’s a terrible academic, his arguments about the origins of the British are nonsense!’.  I quickly reassured him I had not yet read the British book, and he conceeded that Out of Eden was not as bad, then proceeded to explain why he has such a violent dislike of this man’s book.

My Director of Studies was asked to write a review of The Origins of the British, but quickly became irritated with Oppenheimer’s less than rigorous approach to academic articles.  For example, he apparently quotes the non-committal conclusion about whether the Belgae tribe spoke a Celtic language out of context and uses it as positive evidence for his argument that they must therefore have been speaking a Germanic language;  enough inscriptional evidence has now been found to prove that the Belgae were Celtic-speaking peoples.  Oppenheimer postulates two branches of pre-historic migration into Britain, a Celtic branch coming up from the south-west via Spain, and a Germanic branch coming through eastern Europe.  He then argues that this eastern branch must have been speaking a Germanic language long before the traditional date of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the fifth century AD. 

Now, I have not read this book yet, but I would definitely have been sceptical of this.  The problem is that Oppenheimer is making linguistic arguments for a period for which we have absolutely no linguistic evidence.  Celtic and Germanic languages are both ultimately part of the Indo-European language group and it is very hard to pin-point exactly when in the pre-historic period the different branches of this group split off.  By arguing that just because one group came from the east they must have been speaking a Germanic language, Oppenheimer is also contradicting himself.  He has spent a long time in Out of Eden explaining how the inate human ability to learn language is genetically pre-programmed, but exactly which language we speak is conditioned by environmental factors – where we are born and what languages we are exposed to when we are very young.  This is why it is possible for humans to learn more than one language, although this becomes more difficult as we get older because the syntax and grammar for our mother-tongue is hard-wired into our brain at that young age. 

It therefore seems a little silly and contradictory for Oppenheimer to be arguing that a group of people in a particular place must have been speaking a particluar language solely because they were in that particular place in a period long before there is evidence for that language.  What is more, Classical authors such as Tacitus who encountered and wrote about both Celts and Germanic-speaking peoples in the first few centuries AD must surely have been able to tell the difference between the languages they spoke, and would very probably have commented had he encountered any Germanic tribes in Britain.

The problem stems ultimately from the fact that Oppenheimer is a geneticist, not a linguist, an historian or an archaeologist; he is therefore bound to make errors when trying to interpret linguistic, historical or archaeological evidence.  Whilst it is always important to analyse and consider as many different types of evidence as possible when trying to understand an historical or pre-historical period or event, it is also important to recognise that each piece of evidence must be considered on its own terms, and that such different types of evidence which require such different methods of interpretation can very rarely be shoe-horned together in an accurate way.  My Director of Studies directed me towards this article entitled Genetics, Linguistics and Prehistory: thinking big and thinking straight by Celtic scholar Patrick Sims-Williams which addresses exactly these issues with such interdisciplinary work.

I do still intend to read The Origins of the British, but I will be doing so with a healthy pinch of scepticism and my Director of Studies’ invective ringing in my ears!