My ancestors were part of an invasion. OK, so it was not the kind we think of that occurred during the major wars of the 20th century. Or even over the last millennium. I’m referring to the push of a culture into Britain in the 3rd millennium BC. They have become known as the Bell Beaker culture or package, with reference to unique earthenware vessels found in burial sites across Europe.
The grave of a 16 to 18-year old female and a 17 to 20-year old male dating to c.2000-1950 BC. Both are buried with a fineware beaker. Photograph: Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit; sourced from article in The Guardian by Maev Kennedy; downloaded 24 January 2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/21/arrival-of-beaker-folk-changed-britain-forever-ancient-dna-study-shows
The people referenced are part of that segment of humans who share the R1b-M269 Y-DNA marker that originated about 10,000 years ago. The group has a disproportionate demographic signature: in Eastern Turkey, 12% of men have it; in England, 60% have it; in Scotland, it’s 72%; and in Ireland, 85%. The pattern demonstrates a westward migration of people as well as the location in which they originated – somewhere in the region of the Black Sea.
We are not so unique, as it turns out. Apparently over 110 million men carry the marker. It’s staggeringly common in European men. So widespread is it that all the men in my wife’s family are also part of the R1b-M269 group. We are all cousins if you want to go back far enough.
I came across the term in a book published in 2013, but which I am just getting around to read: The British – A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat. It weaves a fascinating trip through the origins of the inhabitants of the British Isles.
And how did I get on to this particular book? Well, it came out of my reading and research into my genealogical past, the effects of natural phenomena on people and communities, climate change, human migration and all the myriad of subjects dealing with how my family got to where they are.
The interesting story is how and when my people, as I will refer to them here, arrived in Britain. I can say with confidence it was long before the use of surnames.
My suspicion is that this DNA subgroup came into Europe following the flooding of the Black Sea region – Euxine Lake. Another interesting theory, described by Ian Wilson, in his 2001 book Before the Flood, suggests the people of that region were forced out, migrating in all directions, including into what is now Europe and the Fertile Crescent, when the Mediterranean Sea broke through the Bosporus about 7,200 years ago. The story of Noah relates to this event as do similar accounts from peoples outside the region.
At any rate, archaeological studies show these people may have spread over land across the valleys and plains of Eastern Europe and through the Mediterranean by boat to Italy and Western Europe.
Beaker people arrived in Britain in more than one wave: one (my people?) likely travelled north from the Iberian Peninsula, with groups moving into southwest England and Ireland; another migrated from central Europe into eastern England and Scotland. Both groups had been part of a general westward spread across Europe in the preceding centuries.
Early diffusion of the Bell-Beaker in Europe; source Wikimedia, downloaded 25 January 2019 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beaker_culture_diffusion.svg
Over 260 other burial sites of Beakers have since been unearthed across the British Isles. Eventually, once in Britain they probably merged.
Beaker-period burials in Britain for which isotopic analyses have been undertaken; source Pearson et al, 2016.
The first grave of a Beaker man was found at Amesbury, Wiltshire, in 2002. He has been named the Amesbury Archer, as he was buried with bow and arrows, and many tools and decorative items, in addition to five Beaker pots. The distinctive pottery style is unique to this group with many similar containers having been found all over Europe.
My people were primarily farmers, who brought their tools, techniques and culture to the British Isles, eventually displacing or becoming part of the people who were there before – perhaps the societies that had built such monuments as Stonehenge. It was the fact that Beaker people knew how to grow their own food, as well as hunt, that allowed them to be successful and their population to grow.
Beaker people were also skilled at metalworking, creating both implements and adornments from copper and gold. That expertise spawned whole new industries among the inhabitants of Britain, such as working and manufacturing of bronze tools and weapons. The Cornwall/Devon region is where tin deposits are found in Britain, a metal required in the production of bronze. It may be that my people were among the first to make bronze tools, given their smithing skills and the required materials available in this area.
I have only scratched the surface in looking at Beaker people. I know I will never be able to trace my ancestors to any particular group, but it is fascinating to think that family members originated as part of this invasion.
Kennedy, Maev. (2018). Arrival of Beaker folk changed Britain for ever, ancient DNA study shows. The Guardian, 22 February 2018.
Moffat, Alistar. (2013). The British A Genetic Journey. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited. 288 pp.
Pearson, Mike Parker, Andrew Chamberlain, Mandy Jay, Mike Richards, Alison Sheridan, Neil
Curtis, Jane Evans, Alex Gibson, Margaret Hutchison, Patrick Mahoney, Peter Marshall, Janet
Montgomery, Stuart Needham, Sandra O'Mahoney, Maura Pellegrini & Neil Wilkin. (2016).
Beaker people in Britain: migration, mobility and diet. Antiquity, 90, pp 620-637
Turek, Jan. (2016). The Beaker World and Otherness of the Early Civilizations. Musaica Archaeologica, 1, pp 155-162.
Wilson, Ian. (2001). Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a real event and how it changed the course of civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press336 pp.
Analysis of the Economic foundations Supporting the Social Supremacy of the Beaker Groups
Bell Beaker culture
Copper Age Iberians ‘exported’ their culture – but not their genes – all over Europe