Skip navigation
Link to Back issues listing | Back Issue Listing with content Index | Subject Index

Book review: Blood of the Isles

Blood of the Isles. Brian Sykes. Bantam Press, London, 2006. pp 306. £11.99. ISBN 0-593-05653-1.

Bandolier, being of a certain age, well remembers the time when a choice had to be made, between Arts on the one side and Sciences on the other. That was the way it was then, torn between the siren call of history and the compelling demands on modernity. What tipped the balance was a book that told the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the Double Helix, by Francis Crick and James Watson. Just as interesting were other newly emerging disciplines, biochemistry for instance, the story of how organic life worked. Anyone could read history: you needed the new knowledge to read the genes.

What goes around comes around. Now it is the genes that are re-writing history, and telling us more than archaeology or the study of ancient texts ever could. It is the new discipline of genetic archaeology that Brian Sykes records, specifically the genetic archaeology of those of us who live in, or have come from, the British Isles.

We are each different from one another in many ways, culturally and genetically. Sykes, though, tells the story of the boring bits of DNA: the useless 400 base pairs in the 17,000 or so that make up mitochondrial DNA that we get only from our mothers, and the outwardly unremarkable sequence of bases TAGA that trips up the copying mechanism of the Y-chromosome. From specific changes in these we learn of our maternal and (for men) paternal genetic history.

Sykes and his team have conducted a genetic survey of the British Isles. His book examines the legends and history of the Isles, and relates it to the evidence from genetic archaeology. If you want to know the answer, this review isn't going to tell you. Just buy the book and read it for yourself: it will probably surprise, but then read Francis Pryor's books, Britain BC, and Britain AD to fill some of the gaps from more muddy archaeology, when more of it comes together.

The surprising thing is how readable this book is. Bandolier devoured it in one go on holiday in Spain, a serendipitous happenstance. Just like the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA, Sykes' book could well be a milestone. There are many reasons to read it, science and history being only two. Get it for any thinking youngster. Genetic archaeology has real importance in how we think about ourselves, and others.

previous story