I have had the somewhat bewildering experience of seeing two very different people I follow on twitter get into a massive spat over a BBC cartoon aimed at educating children. The cartoon seems to be showing a well groomed man of sub-Saharan African pedigree with a Mediterranean looking Mrs, and children with varied skin tones, this was labelled as a “Typical” family in Roman Britain. Considering that 99% of the population of lowland (Roman) Britain were to a great extent a mix of fair or brown haired, pale eyed, and pale skinned, individuals, and probably spent most of their lives covered in dirt and sweat from working the rich British Farmlands for the profit of, their native British overlords who were wilfully collaborating with the Roman Military occupation. I can only guess that either the caption was a mistake, or this was an effort to re-write history at the BBC. It’s a bit like putting up the picture below and claiming that it represents a “typical” Indian family from the Raj:
It seems that wilfully or just through ineptitude, someone in the BBC is confusing the Romans in Britain with the people of Roman Britain.
The argument got quite heated with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the hard talking Lebanese ex-new York and London stock market trader, mathematician and autodidact (in some areas) vs Mary Beard the well mannered, academic, English lady. Taleb said that if the picture from the BBC was “Typical” why was there no trace of sub-Saharan genes in the British gene pool, and Beard arguing that there was ample documentary and archaeological evidence for Africans in Britain. Both were correct.
It escalated when Mary Beard asked Nassim Taleb if he’d read any books on Roman Britain, and Taleb calling Beard a bullshitter. It seemed to me that they were arguing at cross purposes and across a massive socio-cultural political divide. Taleb seemed to be arguing against apparent Political propaganda from the BBC aimed at re-writing history to make it more acceptable to an urban liberal elite, whilst Beard was arguing against an alt-right perception of British racial purity.
Romans in Britain vs Roman Britain
There were undoubtedly black Africans in Roman Britain, but not many. There is evidence for more “Mediterranean type” North Africans, and even more Europeans from various states. But even the highest estimates of the numbers of people from other parts of the Roman Empire in Roman Britain don’t go beyond about 5%, and that number varies widely up to the 5% maximum over the 400 or so years that the Romans militarily occupied us. The largest numbers of these would have been concentrated in the military at very specific points of the country. It seems also that integration between the indigenous Brits and the Roman sponsored incomers was low level at best, as genetic fingerprints suggesting a Roman past for modern British citizens is largely absent. Without a doubt there was some intermarriage, indeed there is evidence for this in documentary sources, and soldiers wouldn’t be soldiers, if there wasn’t a local whore house servicing and profiting from their carnal requirements. But given the relative numbers of Roman incomers at any time compared to the large gene pool of indigenous Brits, any residual genetic legacy has been drowned out.
So was there much ethnic diversity in the indigenous population of Roman Britain? No there wasn’t. Was there much ethnic diversity among the Romans in Britain, absolutely.
To say that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse would be like saying that the Hampshire Village I live in on the South Coast of England is ethnically diverse because we have a Curry House up the road, or because we are only a hour and a half from ethnically diverse areas of London. To say that the Romans in Britain were ethnically diverse is like saying that people who live in central London are ethnically diverse, which is true beyond doubt. But they are two different things, and by no means mutually exclusive.
Trolls and the Academic Virtue Signallers
Unfortunately any hope of rationalising the argument went out the window as soon as the respective sets of followers got involved and started shouting “Fight! Fight!” like kids in a school playground. From what I saw, the Taleb fans were far more unpleasant on a personal level to Mary Beard, than the Beard fans were towards Taleb. The Taleb followers went into full personal insult troll mode, probably without knowing who Mary Beard was, especially as many seemed to be from the USA and for some strange reason Italy (then again they were discussing the Romans), whereas the Beard supporters tended to be more academic putting up tweets of blogs that generally didn’t negate Taleb’s arguments but gave a vent to their virtue signalling.
The underlying issue seemed to be that you had a group of fairly Liberal Academics on Beard’s side arguing for a re-writing of history to fit a politically correct agenda, and on Taleb’s side a group of unsavoury Trolls trying to silence any liberal dissent without actually taking it on in a rational argument. I don’t believe that Beard or Taleb were responsible for either approach.
Interestingly I tweeted both parties to suggest that the issue was one of the Romans in Britain vs Roman Britain, but despite the fact that they both retweeted and answered many unpleasant or ill thought through tweets from both sides, thereby prolonging the pointless shouting match, my, hopefully rational suggestion got ignored by both. That’s a shame.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence
Taleb made a very valid point, saying that there was no evidence for sub-Saharan genes in the native British gene pool before the modern era. This was absolutely correct, academics on Beard’s side countered that the genes could have been lost through genetic drift, especially when looking at Y chromosomes and Mitochondrial DNA, without realising that if anything that probably supported Taleb’s argument. This is because the smaller the representation of a chromosome in a population, the more likely it is to disappear over time through lack chance pairings, e.g. if a man is the only representative of his Y chromosome within a population and all his offspring are daughters, then his Y chromosome will disappear from the records. So the lower the numbers of individuals with such ancestry the more likely their footprint is to disappear from the genetic map.
If the population was in any meaningful way “Ethnically Diverse” their genes would turn up, even in small numbers in current generations, and ancient samples. So Taleb’s arguments don’t show that there weren’t ANY sub-Saharan Africans in Roman Britain, just that they were not represented in any statistically significant numbers, therefore the attempt to show “Roman Britain” as opposed to “the Romans in Britain” as ethnically diverse is nonsense.
Archaeology and DNA
I was also amazed in the number of academics who rallied to the cry that Genetics is not a silver bullet of proof, and can’t be taken in isolation, and were prepared to ignore it all together because it didn’t fit their arguments, and even tried to bolster their argument by quoting approaches that are far less rigourous than genetics, and facts that actually undermined their own arguments.
For example, a number of people quoted the evidence that bodies from high status “Roman” graves in Britain, notably Lant Street from Bermondsey in South London showed evidence, mainly through isotope analysis, of individuals who may have come from North Africa (or at least somewhere hotter and drier than Italy). If they had read the actual conclusions from the dig (as I did), they would have seen that one young woman in particular who was cited as being “probably” raised in North Africa, actually had blue eyes according to genetic evaluation of her remains. Blue eyes only developed once in history, and that was in Europe. In other words she was an example of possible genetic diversity in North Africa, rather than genetic diversity in Britain. In any case she is just as likely to have come from Southern Europe as North Africa.
To be convincing, what would be needed to make the BBC cartoon and caption true rather than politically correct propaganda aimed at children would be a sub -saharan African genetic profile from a Roman era grave in a non-urban environment in Roman occupied Britain, that had an isotope analysis that showed the person had been raised in Britain. Some evidence of this has been found in non-sub-Saharan ancestry remains in the urbanised areas of Roman Britain, but not in the rural areas where the overwhelming large numbers of indigenous Britons lived.
Looking at other periods, the Amesbury Archer, has been shown to have come from somewhere in Central Europe, and he left a genetic marker in later generations, born and bred in Britain. Clear evidence of ethnic mixing albeit on a much less obvious European level.
If we look at the latest genomic and other research on individuals from the urban Roman parts of Roman Britain, we see interesting results. Firstly in the North of England in York, extensive testing has been carried out on Roman era remains from the Roman City, all the results bar one individual show haplogroups of sub-lineages of (R1b-L52/L11) the most common Y chromosome lineage from natives of Western Europe, one man was found to be from J2-L228 Haplogroup, which is described as “Middle-Eastern” but is better described as East Mediterranean and Near Eastern. The rest of the male skeletons were found to be similar genetically to the modern Welsh, rather than modern Yorkshiremen. All of the mitochondrial DNA passed on by female ancestors in the bodies tested were from the most common Western European lineages.
One oft touted individual from York is the so called Ivory Bangle Lady, who undoubtedly spent many years in either Southern Europe or North Africa, and had an Elephant Ivory Bangle in her grave goods. She has been claimed to be “African” and depicted more or less as a “Black African”, apparently based on some bone measurements. It made a good story for press releases, and was eagerly taken up by the BBC. however, looking closer at claims for her sub-Saharan African ancestry, and other individuals amongst Roman remains who even have Chinese claims for ancestry, it will be found that these claims are so far based on measuring size and relative proportions of bones and teeth (Macromorphology) rather than on any DNA evidence. This approach is thought of as unreliable amongst Bioarchaeologists. No isotope analysis or DNA studies back up the claims. So at best an unreliable approach is being taken to make claims of headline grabbing exotic African origins for remains, let alone Chinese.
The obvious upside of this is that it brings publicity for the Archaeologists involved. I’d be prepared to bet that if more detailed DNA research is carried out on these remains, all of the more exotic claims will be disproved.
Which brings us back to the other elephant in the room; ALL the Roman era bodies that have been subjected to genetic analysis and that show any sign of non-indiginous genetic makeup are ones from small but heavily Romanised enclaves, such as London and York, and military areas dominated by the Roman Politico-Military machine. They just aren’t representative of the overall population of Roman Britain.
It’s a bit like an unexpected Tsunami hitting the River Hamble during Cowes week, and Archaeologists in two thousand years time uncovering the skeletons of the drowned from the mud, declaring that there were such a high number of Russians and Arabs among the dead, that Hamble must have been an ethnically diverse Village in deepest Hampshire, and therefore the whole of the UK must have harboured a massive population of Russians and Arabs; outside of Knightsbridge that just wouldn’t be the case. Similarly did my maternal granddad serving in the British Army in India before and after the First World War make India Ethnically Diverse? I don’t think so.
Getting back to the evidence, all the genetic and isotope evidence so far shows a balance between Indigenous British, European, and some Mediterranean (including the Roman Provinces of North Africa and the Levant) genetics, backed up by similar findings for isotope analysis. But again this is from heavily Romanised urban militarised areas, where most of the population didn’t live, but where most of the high status (and therefore interesting from a media point of view) burials are found, and quite frankly, where “all the foreigners” would have lived in Roman times (to quote an imaginary Ancient British taxi driver) . It simply isn’t a representative sample of “Roman Britain” although undoubtedly is a representative sample of “the Romans in Britain”. Hence the twitter storm.
Mediterranean vs Sub-Saharan
All the examples of Africans quoted, bar one, were of North Africans, who were largely “Mediterranean” in genotype and phenotype rather than “Sub-Saharan”. But unfortunately these people didn’t seem to be African enough for some academics, so you will find examples of Septimus Severus, Roman Emperor, half Liby-Phoenician half Italian, being described simply as an African Emperor of Rome who died in Britain (the last fact is correct), on the “Black Roman” section of the British National Archives site.
Twitter brings out the worst in people (on average)
The sad thing about the whole debacle was not just the appalling mindless despicable name calling of the trolls towards Mary Beard, from people with less than a fraction of her ability, but the sadly inept and downright incorrect arguments of many of the academics when trying to counter argue Nassim Taleb, and their attempts to defend the indefensible, i.e. the intentional or otherwise inaccurate BBC propaganda aimed at children. If only the BBC had resisted the chance to politicise the cartoon, and instead entitled it “An interesting and unusual example of a Roman Family in Britain” maybe the debate could have been carried on at a calmer level?
For my part I’m happy for my ancestors to have come from any background and skin colour. But I don’t want academic arrogance and missinformation driving a political agenda falsely re-writing history, nor do I want a debate drowned out by trolls hurling insults.
History may be written by the winners, but genetics is the voice of the people.
…and if you are interested in seeing who you are descended from, contact Time Detectives on firstname.lastname@example.org.