Simanaitis Says

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MIGRATION, ETHNICITY, and racial purity have been much in the news these days. Fortunately, so have the stabilizing influences of scientific research. In particular, goodbye to a favorite myth believed by World War II Nazis (and like-minded people today) concerning an Aryan-pure ancestor named Hermann the German.

This and other tidbits are summarized in “Busting Myths of Origin,” by Ann Gibbons, in Science May 19, 2017. She writes, “Using revolutionary new methods to analyze DNA and the isotopes found in bones and teeth, scientists are exposing the tangled roots of peoples around the world, as varied as Germans, ancient Philistines and Kashmiri.”

In particular, Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East.

Migrations through the ages. New research shows how major migrations shaped who we are today. This and other images from Science, May 10, 2017.

As shown in the timeline, a small band of humans first left Africa more than 50,000 years ago. Gibbons observes, “Today, almost all humans outside Africa carry traces of archaic DNA.”

Researchers at Harvard University studied DNA from 51 Europeans and Asians who lived 7000 to 45,000 years ago. The second migration occurred after the Ice Age, some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, when hunter-gathers from the Middle East returned to a largely glacier-free Europe. The third migration began about 5000 years ago with Yamnaya herders arriving from the steppe north of the Black Sea in what is now Russia.

A example of Corded Ware culture, one result of Yamnaya migration into Europe about 5000 years ago.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen suggest that most Yamnaya arrivals were men. Before long, though, the men had intermarried with Anatolian women, as indicated by skeletons analyzed through strontium and nitrogen isotopes in their bones.

Myths of origin have been modified by this and other research. For example, the Basques of northern Spain have long thought themselves a people apart from other Europeans. However, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden found that Basque DNA is still typical of the second-migration Euro mix, albeit carrying relatively little third-migration Yamnaya trace.

An 11th-century Irish myth had it that wanderers from Scythia and Egypt reached Ireland and established a people akin to the Spanish and distinct from the British. A later story relates these Black Irish to Spaniards washed ashore during Spain’s abortive invasion in 1588.

Says a researcher at Trinity College, Dublin, it’s a great story, but ”just didn’t happen.” Two studies showed only “a very small Spanish contribution” to both Brit and Irish DNA.

Science writer Gibbons says, “The boom in studies is centered on Europe, where access to ancient remains is relatively easy and cold climates can help preserve DNA.” Research techniques are expanding, though, and recent excavations in Israel have solved a long-standing mystery about the ancient Philistine people. Writes Gibbons, “In biblical texts, these ‘uncircumscribed’ people are known as bitter enemies of the Israelites; the name ‘Philistine’ is still the slur in English.”

Goliath, David’s slingshot target, was a Philistine. They’re also the baddies in Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson and Delilah, although, I confess, to my ear the Philistines get lots better songs than the Hebrews.

Samson at the Treadmill, by Carl Bloch, 1863.

The Philistines had their heyday in the Old Testament, then all but disappeared until recent research. According to a researcher in charge of excavations for two decades, isotope analysis and other techniques have shown that “The Philistines are an entangled culture from western Anatolia, Cyprus, the Balkans, you name it.”

It’s also suggested that Philistines intermarried with people already living in Canaan. Of Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, Gibbons writes, “These groups, so full of enmity today, are genetically closely related, according to a study in 2000 of the paternally inherited Y chromosomes of 119 Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and 143 Israeli and Palestinian Arabs.”

Arminius, c. 18 B.C.–21 A.D., aka Hermann the German, hero of myth in withstanding Roman legions.

And then there’s the myth of Hermann the German. Arminius (the Romanized Hermann) was of the Cherusci people of what is now northwest Germany. Trained as a Roman military commander, he later switch-hit in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, 9 A.D., which stopped Rome’s northward conquests beyond the Rhine.

Arminius was later assassinated by his own cohorts who believed he was getting too powerful, but this is another story entirely.

His legacy as Hermann the German arose from the historian Tacitus, c. 100 A.D. It blossomed with German unification in the 19th century and was hijacked by the Third Reich as a fine example of a master race’s Aryan purity.

Ha. Gibbons writes, “The Cherusci, like all Europeans of their day and later, were themselves composites, built from serial migrations into the heart of Europe and then repeatedly mixed.”

Let’s welcome Hermann the German into the greater human family. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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