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To hell with ethnic purity

The French, who for so long talked about ‘nos ancêtres, les Gaulois’, may have felt justified in not looking too closely at their antecedence. The Germanic element is in fact more important: according to Luigi Barzini, the Italian author and politician, almost half the inhabitants of present-day France are the descendants of Germanic tribes.

As Graham Robb points out in his book The Discovery of France, “The Celtic and Germanic tribes who invaded ancient Gaul and the Frankish tribes who attacked the ailing Roman province had almost as many different origins as the population of modern France. The only coherent, indigenous group that a historically sound National Front party could claim to represent would be the very first wandering band of pre-human primates that occupied this section of the Western European isthmus” (what Norman Davis calls “the European Peninsula”).

Even 500 years ago, there were few communities in Europe that could reasonably claim, had they wanted to, to be ethnically homogeneous. In fact, they had better things to do with their time. In the intervening half-millennium, those communities that could have made this assertion have seen their claims made even more tenuous by migration and miscegenation. Italy, for example, saw the settlement of the Germanic Langobardi - the ‘long-bearded people’, today’s Lombards – and the short-lived incursions of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths who sacked Rome.

The Iberian peninsula provided the setting for a series of Germanic civilisations: first and fleetingly the Vandals, who gave their name to Andalusia, later the Suevi (the Swabians again) and the Visigoths. Spain was a very cosmopolitan place. Other settlers in that particular piece of God’s Earth, some temporary but most of them permanent, included the Iberians, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, English and French.

In fact there is genetic evidence of a population movement through Spain that brought Stone Age man up the Atlantic coast to the British Isles (except that at that time these islands were still land-linked to the Continent, which made matters easier for the migrants). The genetic marker in question is particularly prominent in the Irish county of Connaught (98.3% of all men, according to a recent study by Trinity College scientists) – a phenomenon that may also owe something to the land clearances imposed on the Irish by their English masters later on.

The Celts, because they ended up in the most inaccessible corners of Western Europe – Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia and northern Portugal – have managed to maintain some sort of ethnic identity. Yet even the most idiosyncratic of the Celts, the Irish, cannot evoke their Celtishness much beyond the limits of their cultural traditions. Historian E Esteyn Evans believed that the genes coming from English settlers there exceed those deriving from the Celts, and that “those coming from older stocks would constitute the largest proportion” (a reference to the earlier Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic settlers).

In his book The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker observes that “race and ethnicity are the most minor differences of all.” The human geniticists Walter Bodmer and Luca Cavalli-Sforza have noted a paradox about race. “Among laypeople, race is lamentably salient, but for biologists it is virtually invisible. Eighty-five percent of human genetic variation consists of the differences between one person and another within the same ethnic group, tribe or nation.”

Many communities arrive at apparent homogeneity through a gradual process of miscegenation combined, in some cases, with their relative isolation. Portugal is a good example, but in its case as in many others the brew is like a minestrone soup, where one spoonful looks just like another, yet each spoonful contains enough ingredients to confound any claims to homogeneity.

Maybe the Swabians again – descendants of the Suevi, one of the Alemanni tribes that crossed the frozen Rhine in AD 406 – have a case for some degree of genetic continuity. Poachers turned gamekeepers, they won the right from an enfeebled Roman Empire to guard its frontiers. The consequence today is a community of common origin that extends along both banks of the Rhine through four countries from France’s Alsace to include Germany, Switzerland and the Austrian Vorarlberg.

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