From time to time I have put up posts which discuss findings in the origins of humans and our ways. In the posts I argue that we all have much more in common than our differences, which are often constructed, and remind us of our journey from our undistinguished origins in primeval slime and our cousins on the road; and urge us to acknowledge the common experiences and common ancestry of people across Britain and the world; and indeed our common relationship to other creatures.

Yes, even constructed differences between groups are real, but I think that in the long story of humans contemporary differences are fundamentally shallow. Overblown claims of Cornish singular distinctiveness seem to be based on a foreshortened view of human history and a disregard of the vast commonalities.

In this post in April this year I noted Maria Pala’s comment about work in archeogenetics: “It helps us to revaluate the perception of our identity. We are highly focussed on identifying ourselves as Italians, British or whatever, but by analysing DNA we discover that originally, not such a long time ago, we came from a common source.”

Now, following on this post about interbreeding among homo sapiens sapiens and neanderthals, an article in PLOS Genetics reports research that suggests the interbreeding took place probably as recently as 35 000 years ago. People calling themselves Cornish and people calling themselves English have neanderthal genes and neanderthal avital grandmothers.

Read the report from PLOS Genetics 4 October 2012 ‘The date of interbreeding between neandertals and modern humans’ by Sriram Sankararaman and others.

Note this from the research: “the last gene flow from Neandertals (or their relatives) into Europeans likely occurred 37,000–86,000 years before the present (BP), and most likely 47,000–65,000 years ago”

Earlier posts
English and Cornish have same milk gene 10 March 2007

English and Cornish are sisters under the skin 20 July 2007

Blue-eyed Cornish and English are brothers 31 January 2008

Atomising people 12 September 2008

Cornwall 5460 years ago 31 January 2010

The first Cornishman 1 May 2010

The Cornishman, the Englishman, and the frog 2 May 2010

A wondrous mixture 8 May 2010

To see oursels as ithers see us 17 May 2010

Puny boundaries 19 May 2010

A walrus, a mouse, and a man went into a bar 18 July 2010

A common source for the English and Cornish 14 May 2012


We are immigrants, settlers, incomers, all of us. We are not the originals, the indigenous. Whatever ethnic or national labels we give ourselves, others were here before us and ours. I explored this last year in the post Indigenous and have previously mentioned the Ancient Human Ocupation of Britain (AHOB) project.

Now have a look at this report in Science. The article costs but the brief abstract is free to read. There are also longer free online account here and here.

The report is another look at what happened to the Neanderthals. We homo sapiens sapiens migrated into Europe about 40 000 years ago. Looking at Perigord in southwest France, the report suggests that our species overwhelmed by numbers, along with cultural and technological advantages, the Neanderthals already here.

Indigeneity, a political construct, did not begin in Britain with a relatively recent Celtic-speaking people; that does not look far enough back. There were humans in Britain about 800 000 years ago at Happisburg in Norfolk. Inconstant settlement in our country has a long, long history with humans coming and going as circumstances changed. The last human occupation began about 12 000 years ago.

We are newcomers, all of us, and largely here by specific conquest. The predecessors as an identifiable group are gone, extinct or absorbed into us or massacred by our ancestors.

Hmm. I’m not sure the title of this post delivered what some might have expected.

‘Tenfold population increase in western Europe at the neandertal-to-modern human transition’ by Paul MELLARS and Jennifer C FRENCH in Science 29 July 2011

Where do the Cornish come from? 22 June 2011

There are two spellings in English of Neanderthal/Neandertal

EDIT: the reference to added 30 July 2011 and to For what they were, we are added 10 August 2011.


16 March 2011

The photographs of the celebrations of St Piran’s day, 5 March, fill the local newspapers. In fine weather children danced and pranced in the streets, probably organised by their schools but very clearly enjoying themselves. People played cheery music, sang, bedecked themselves, and marched with flags.

This was street patriotism everyone can be happy about, the sort of festive celebration you find all over Britain and the world though you can overdo the marching purposefully with flags.

It is a happy circumstance that Piran is lost in the fog of history and indeed may never have existed. We can ignore the fantastical nonsenses told about him. It is best to take most saints with a pinch of salt: the instincts of the Reformation Protestants were right about this. He is a peg on which to hang this day; belief in him is not required.

I have discussed before the disconnection between being Cornish and being a nationalist. St Piran’s day demonstrated it convincingly. Many people here enjoy being Cornish, are happy to be Cornish, confident in their Cornishness; celebrate it; if asked to choose one only descriptor may very well call themselves Cornish and put it on the flawed censuses; and think Cornwall special, though aware of ubiquitous uniqueness; but do not desire politics here to be a nationalist re-enactment of the middle ages. The vast majority of people in Cornwall, by whatever nationality and ethnicity they call themselves, think the most important things in their lives are the everyday experiences around home, family, work, friends, neighbourhood, and health, as do people in the rest of England.

As for nationalists, they make their case, speak and write freely, demonstrate freely, learn and speak and write Cornish if they wish, fight elections freely. Nationalism presents what I see as the Ptolemaic model of Cornwall with its constitutional positions and its particular interpretation of history – and political nationalism and separatism sink like a millstone. People in Cornwall can indeed distinguish between being Cornish and being a nationalist; the former does not necessarily imply the latter.


19 May 2010

The best theory we have is that all of us alive today, males and females, carry the mitochondrial DNA of one woman who lived in Africa about 150 000 years ago. All males alive today carry the Y-chromosome of one man who lived there about 70 000 years ago. The dates are for question but everyone in Cornwall, indeed everyone from the world, is ultimately related and ultimately from Africa.

We have a common origin and we are all members of the same human family.

Of course many people develop sentiments about the place they think of as home and of course from place to place, group to group, and time to time people have constructed cultures. However, nothing should blind us to our common origins and heritage. All of us in Cornwall are, without exception, either immigrants ourselves or the descendants of immigrants to this place. None of our original families began here in Cornwall. Arguing that my great-great-grandfather got here before yours is for playgrounds.

It is disappointing to hear the narcissism that is Cornish nationalism proclaim imagined difference, divisive diversity, and census apartheid. Mine may be a small voice against the nationalist clangour about claimed distinctiveness but I say such separatism sucks. Don’t build walls between people, tear them down.

Wordsworth had it right:
“We multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.”

Earlier posts
What does it mean to be Cornish? 1 October 2009

Atomising people 12 September 2008

We multiply distinctions… William Wordsworth The prelude book 2, line 217 onwards


8 May 2010

You have had a couple of days or so to get used to being related to a pipid frog.

Now get used to this. Modern European and Asian humans, homo sapiens sapiens, likely interbred with Neanderthals – the word can be spelt Neanderthal or Neandertal – and as a result share about 1 percent to 4 percent of their DNA with Neanderthals.

You can read the science story, ‘A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome,’ in Science for 7 May 2010 pages 710-722.

New Scientist for 6 May 2010 has a summary article about it, ‘Neanderthal genome reveals interbreeding with humans,’ and the story appears in several newspapers.

Dienekes interestingly discusses doubts.

What a wondrous mixture we are. A new tick-box for the census: True-born, with a touch of frog and Neanderthal.

I collected together data, of varying status, for the number of people in Cornwall who describe themselves, or are described by their parents, as White Cornish in a 2007 post, updated by posts in 2008 and 2009. This post is a further update to incorporate the 2010 PLASC figures.

In Britain people have a free choice as to how they describe their ethnicity and one can freely change one’s ethnic description if one wishes. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) uses numerous ethnic categories though only a few appear discretely on spatially constrained census forms.

There are several major local sources of information about the numbers of people in various ethnicities in Cornwall, the annual school census, the periodic Cornwall quality of life survey, and two social service surveys. The sets of data from each of these are neither comparable between the sources nor, strictly, within them and this should be borne in mind when reading the sets or assuming apparent trends. The national census has not had an open tick-box option of the two main ethnicities in Cornwall, English and Cornish (actually, White English and White Cornish) and thus is unhelpful here.

Here are the ethnic results from the school census (PLASC), taken in January each year, for the overall proportion of pupils described as White Cornish:
2006: 24 percent
2007: 27 percent
2008: 30 percent
2009: 34 percent
2010: 37 percent

This data suggests that the proportion categorised (largely by their parents) as White Cornish is rising overall as new nursery and primary pupils enter school. Additionally, the percentages of White Cornish for each of the separate primary/nursery, secondary, and special school groups have risen over time.

The 2004 Cornwall Quality of Life Survey for the county council showed that 35 percent of respondents described themselves as “White Cornish” (Table 5). In the 2007 survey this is 26 percent (table 3.1.15). The fall is unexplained in the survey. Note that there is a fall here but a rise in the pupil figures.

Two surveys in Cornwall in 2006 of people receiving various social services included a question about ethnic identity. The Charter survey showed forty three percent of respondents regarded themselves as Cornish; the personal social services (PSS) homecare survey showed forty five percent did; in both surveys virtually all were White Cornish. The respondents to the Charter survey were chiefly female and elderly; the numbers of respondents to the homecare survey were substantially female and practically all of them were elderly.

Data discrimination against the English?
The 2004 Quality of Life Survey survey also showed 48 percent describing themselves as White English and 11 percent as White British. The 2007 Quality of Life survey omitted the White English tick box and offered White British which 72 percent ticked. I don’t know why the English category was omitted, especially as it was the largest single group in 2004. Whatever the reason, the effect might be seen as data discrimination against those in Cornwall who regard themselves as English and is a loss of useful information about a community. I find the the omission regrettable. The Cornwall 2006 social services survey also include Cornish but not English as an open ethnic option; again this might be seen in effect in Cornwall as data discrimination. (The 2001 census had neither English nor Cornish as an open tick-box option; the next one will apparently include English as an open option but not Cornish, an omission which I also regret.)

There are acknowledged difficulties in how representative of the population of Cornwall the populations in each of these data sets are. The response to the quality of life surveys under-represent the younger groups; the pupil surveys naturally are tilted to the young and their largely youngish parents; the 2006 surveys tilt to the elderly and women. The populations of the school censuses are very much larger than those of the quality of life and 2006 surveys.

Perhaps here I might mention that in the 2001 census, which did not have a Cornish or an English tick box for identity, 33 932 people living in Cornwall wrote on the form that they were Cornish, about seven percent of the population, the percentage being higher in the west than in the east. These write-in figures are presumably provided by adults completing the census form. The actual views of children are not necessarily expressed as adults probably write in children as Cornish or fail to write them in as Cornish whatever the children think.

In summary, based on these sources the proportion of people in Cornwall describing themselves, or describing their children, as Cornish ranges from about a quarter to about two fifths of Cornwall’s population. The proportion is not consistent, varying by age and location. The data is based on people being asked to choose only one ethnicity though, given the choice, many people claim more than one identity. The total population of Cornwall in mid-2008 was estimated at 532 000.

Note that these are people self-describing as Cornish (or parents describing their children as Cornish). Some people consider that there are criteria such as parentage and ancestors which determine whether one is Cornish. There is a tension between these varying ideas of who is Cornish.

I discuss in a later post what these ethnic figures might mean.

Which end do you break your egg?
I’m putting here a paragraph from my post How many are Cornish? as it makes a point I think important about ethnicity and nationalism:

“I understand the point of ethnic monitoring so that we can use the data to try to ensure our public services are genuinely accessible to all parts of the population and so that we can try to provide relevant services. I understand the need to see oneself in particular ways, to enjoy various identities, including group ones. So I am not hostile to collecting and using ethnic data and giving people the chance to identify themselves. However, I have questions. How wise is it to seek out differences among people rather than concentrating on what we have in common? Can stressing ethnic, religious, and other cultural distinctions with no balancing commonalities engender antagonisms? How do we take care that these differences among people do not create unhealthy division and hostility? I suppose I believe it doesn’t matter which end of the egg you open.”
Note: Original post 16 June 2008; the 2006 surveys added October 2008; paragraph on census write-ins added 17 December 2008.

Related posts

Atomising people

Ethnicity and Cornwall

And biologically speaking

Blue-eyed Cornish and English are brothers

English and Cornish are sisters under the skin

English and Cornish have same milk gene

“which end of the egg you open” – Jonathan SWIFT, Gulliver’s travels, part 1, chapter 4


31 January 2010

Most males in Cornwall and Leicestershire carry the same ‘Anatolian’ Y-DNA haplogroup

Another strand in the complicated weave of British genetic history has been published: A predominantly neolithic origin for European paternal lineages (dated 19 January 2010). Read it here.

There are two competing broad hypotheses in prehistory: either farming was brought to Europe by neolithic farmers migrating here or farming was acquired, through cultural transfer, by paleolithic people already here. Put simply, this study shows that most European men are descended from incoming neolithic farmers from Anatolia in the near east. Most women, however, are descended from the hunter-gatherers already here.

Put simply — read the study to get the complete picture — the evidence in this study about European males includes data from Cornwall and from Leicestershire which is in the heart of England. Table 2 of the study shows that the most recent common ancestor of the migrant males in Cornwall dates between 3764 and 7777 years ago, an average at 5460 years ago. Definitely not a paleolithic origin. The average date for Leicestershire is 5981 years ago. Table 1 shows the proportion of males carrying the ‘Anatolian’ haplotype to be 78 percent for Cornwall and 62 percent for Leicestershire. This data suggests to me that most Cornish and English males are biologically similar not distinct.

There are reports on this study here and here (this focuses on Ireland). And interesting criticism here.

Also see this post which looks at other studies Ethnicity and Cornwall..