Before We Were Us We Were Them

Sometime around 800,000 years ago early humanids migrated out of Africa and into Southern Europe, it took another 300,000 years for them to reach what we now think of as the British Isles. According to Francis Pryor the slow pace of this drift to the north was probably determined by the weather being then, as now, less hospitable the further north they travelled. By the time these hunter gatherers reached Southern England they were capable of making a variety of sophisticated stone tools so we might argue that they were the first people to import “foreign” ideas and technology. These Palaeolithic hunters can now be shown, through DNA testing, to be the genetic pool from which the historical core of our population is descended. Pryor presents the argument that for the next many thousands of years the culture, technology and population of these islands evolves as new people and, more importantly, new ideas arrive and as “we” absorb and develop these ideas and the people who bring them.

Pryor argues that if we take the long view the subsequent waves of migrants never significantly displaced the first inhabitants as he, like many other archeologists, considers the idea of the Celts being pushed to the west as a myth. Newcomers and their ideas were absorbed with each group adding something to what we might call our national character, our language, technology and culture. The Roman invasion brutally imposed a new socio-political order but their strategy was to Romanise the exiting ruling classes rather than replace them so it is unlikely that the day-to-day life of the average peasant changed to any great degree or that an “Italian” family moved in next door but many of the ideas imported by the Romans lingered long after the last legionnaire departed and were to form the foundation of our religious and education system for the next 2,000 years.

The political and military vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire is potentially an exaggerated concept. It is possible that national administration was replaced by local tax collection as evidenced by soldiers still being based on Hadrian’s Wall in the 5th Century so it is more likely that the Celtic population carried on farming the same land in much the same way that they had whilst the Romans were here, the landowners after all were Romanised Celts so they were unlikely to have left. However, continuos and regular contact with the Continent for the purposes of trade also facilitated the exchange of new ideas, a process that might have been accelerated by the arrival of Angles, Jutes and Saxons who settled in the East. These processes eventually established a new language, socio-political order and religious infrastructure that spread across much of Britain and, in time, supposedly through Alfred, established the concept of Englishness for the first time.

Between the Romans’ leaving and Alfred’s victory over the Danes all of the British Isles were first aggressively raided then partly settled by Scandinavians and whilst historians suggest that the number of these immigrants was comparatively small their’s and the Saxon’s influence is well remembered in our language and place names. It is reasonable to assume that in the long period between the original Palaeolithic hunters drifting into these islands and the Norman elite taking over our government the majority of visitors, both settlers and invaders, were male. Whether these men were legionnaires from the furthest edges of the Roman empire, Viking raiders or Saxon settlers we can also reasonably assume that they freely contributed their genes to an already heady genetic cocktail.

So long before the rise and fall of the British Empire created the modern migratory routes from Asia, Africa and Africa via the Caribbean we were already a mongrel race who had evolved a national identity, language and way of life based partly on the ideas brought by each wave of visitors and migrants and the frequent exchange of ideas with an ever widening world.

There are no simple answers to immigration, no silver bullet that stops economic migrants seeking a better life in more prosperous places or that establishes peaceful prosperity in the war torn regions of the middle east and the horn of Africa. But, we could pause just long enough to recognise that the immigration of the immediate post war period was in large part a consequence of our ancestor’s policies of invasion and colonisation; a policy that made Britain one of the richest countries of modern times, and that the Syrian crisis might also have some of its roots in the ill-thought-through Anglo-American destabilisation of one of the most volatile regions on the planet.

Apart from recognising that we reap what we sow we can also remember that before we were us, we were them. Beyond finding some level of compassion we need to change the paradigm to recognise that since time immemorial the tribe could not be insular, it had to be open to new ideas and new genes if it wanted to survive and prosper. Our national identity will neither be weakened, nor the Treasury emptied by the arrival of even 100,000 Syrians any more than it was by the 250,000 Irish Navvies who came here seeking employment in the 19th century or the similar number of South Africans who have arrived in Britain in the very recent past.


This essay is a background piece to support assignment 5 which has the question of immigration and identity at its heart. It is, in part, inspired by the ideas and writings of the archaeologist Francis Pryor whose common sense views on the ancient history of Britain reveal a far more exciting and complex story of these islands and our national identity than the Victorian perspective that my generation was taught at school. However, the “political” views expressed here are mine not Dr. Pryor’s and any errors of fact are defiantly mine not his.


Pryor, Francis ( 2003) Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans. London: Harper Collins

Pryor, Francis (2004) Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Ango-Saxons. London: Harper Collins

Pryor, Francis (2010) The Making of the British Landscape: How we Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today. London: Penguin Books

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2 Responses to Before We Were Us We Were Them

  1. Catherine says:

    Excellent contextual background, which is what I’ve come to expect from you!

    • Thank you Catherine. I wanted to have a clear separation between the socio-political context and the concept and influences. This might prove to have been the harder essay to write as I didn’t want to be political with a capital P.

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