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Stephen Oppenheimer

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Stephen Oppenheimer (born 1947), a British physician, a member of Green College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, performs and publishes research in the field of genetics.

From 1972 Oppenheimer worked as a clinical paediatrician in Malaysia, Nepal and Papua New Guinea. From 1979 he moved into medical research and teaching, with positions at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Oxford University, a research centre in Kilifi, Kenya and the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. From 1990 to 1994 he served as chairman and chief of clinical service in the Department of Paediatrics in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He worked as senior specialist paediatrician in Brunei from 1994 to 1996.

Oppenheimer returned to England in 1996, and began a second career as a researcher and popular-science writer on human prehistory. His books synthesise human genetics with archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, and folklore.


Books by Oppenheimer

  • The Origins of the British - A Genetic Detective Story. 2006, Constable and Robinson. ISBN 1-84529-158-1.
  • Out of Eden. 2004, Constable and Robinson ISBN 1-84119-894-3
  • The Real Eve. Carroll & Graf; (September 9, 2004) ISBN 0-7867-1334-8
  • Eden in the East. 1999, Phoenix (Orion) ISBN 0-7538-0679-7

A documentary, The Real Eve 2002, takes as its basis Stephen Oppenheimer's book of the same name.

Out of Eden or The Real Eve

This work, published in 2004, focuses on Oppenheimer's hypothesis that modern humans emerged from East Africa in a single major exodus numbering no more than a few hundred individuals. This lone group of wanderers, he suggests, became the ancestors of all non-Africans and of most North Africans, their descendants having since radiated into a plurality of physical characteristics, languages, ethnicities and cultures as seen today.

Eden in the East

In his book Eden in the East: The Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia, published in 1998, Oppenheimer hypothesizes that Eurasians have South Asian origins, citing evidence from a variety of disciplines to make his case: geology, archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and folklore. Using geological evidence, he writes about the rise in ocean levels that accompanied the waning of the ice age -- as much as 500 feet -- during the period 14,000-7,000 years ago and says that this submerged the continental shelf off the coast of southeast Asia. He calls this submerged continent Sundaland and cites archaeological evidence for an original culture in this region. The rising ocean levels caused this culture to disperse, and Oppenheimer supports this idea with evidence from genetics, linguistics, and folklore. He notes, for example, that those cultures in regions whose geology would have led to their being submerged have flood myths, whereas there are no flood myths in Africa, which because of its lack of a continental shelf, was relatively unaffected by the rising ocean level.

Origins of the British

In his 2006 book The Origins of the British, Oppenheimer argued that neither Anglo-Saxons nor Celts had much impact on the genetics of the inhabitants of the British Isles, and that British ancestry mainly traces back to the Paelolithic Iberian people, now represented by Basques, instead. He published an introduction to his book in Prospect magazine.[1]

Oppenheimer uses genetic studies to give an insight into the genetic origins of people in the British Isles and speculates on how to match this evidence with linguistic and archaeological data to give insights into the origins of Britain, the Celts, the Vikings and the English. He breaks down the R1b haplogroup into a detailed set of clans that are undefined.

He makes the case that the geography and culture of Britain stem from two main zones of contact:

  1. The Atlantic fringe from Spain and Portugal to the western British Isles
  2. Continental Europe to Eastern England and northern Scotland

He uses the evidence that the Germanic genetic contribution to Eastern England originated before the Anglo-Saxon incursion to suggest that the possibility that some inhabitants of the isle of Britain spoke English well before the so-called "Dark Ages".

Oppenheimer derives much archaeological information from Professor Barry Cunliffe's ideas of the trading routes using the Atlantic from Spain, and from the writings of:

  • Simon James (The Atlantic Celts - Ancient People or Modern Invention? ISBN 0299166740)
  • Francis Pryor (Britain B.C. : life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans ISBN 0007126921)
  • John Collis (The Celts : origins, myths & inventions ISBN 0752429132)
  • Colin Renfrew, (Archaeology and Language - The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins ISBN 0521354323)

The work of the geneticist Peter Forster has strongly influenced Oppenheimer's linguistic theories.

Oppenheimer's main ideas include:

  1. The importance of Cunliffe's Atlantic routes to the settling of Britain.
  2. Since much British genetic material dates to the first settlement of Britain following the ice ages, all subsequent invasions/migrations/immigrations occurred on a relatively small scale and did not replace Britain's population.
  3. Celtic origins derive from southern France and northern Spain.
  4. The Central European theory for Celtic origins has no basis.
  5. Some genetic evidence in support of Renfrew's theory of Indo-European origins comes from farming.
  6. Genetic evidence suggests that the division between the West and the East of England does not begin with the Anglo-Saxon invasion but originates with two main routes of genetic flow — one up the Atlantic coast, the other from neighboring areas of Continental Europe.
  7. Scandinavian influences, stronger than suspected, may outweigh West Germanic influence.
  8. A genetic difference exists between the Saxon areas of England and the Anglian areas. (Oppenheimer suggests that the so-called Anglo-Saxon invasion actually mostly consisted of an Anglian incursion.)
  9. An early introduction of English to Britain might explain the lack of Celtic influence on early English and the genetic split between East and West.
  10. Classical sources differentiate between Gallic/Celtic and Belgae. Some sources suggest that some of the Belgae have a German origin. Various archaeological and linguistic evidence make for a weaker case for Celtic presence in Belgic and Eastern England than in Gallic/Celtic or western Britain. The latter suggestion has proved to be controversial, eg see "Language Log".

In Origins of the British (2006), Stephen Oppenheimer states (pages 375 and 378):

By far the majority of male gene types in the British Isles derive from Iberia (Spain and Portugal), ranging from a low of 59% in Fakenham, Norfolk to highs of 96% in Llangefni, north Wales and 93% Castlerea, Ireland. On average only 30% of gene types in England derive from north-west Europe. Even without dating the earlier waves of north-west European immigration, this invalidates the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory...

...75-95% of British Isles (genetic) matches derive from Iberia... Ireland, coastal Wales, and central and west-coast Scotland are almost entirely made up from Iberian founders, while the rest of the non-English parts of the British Isles have similarly high rates. England has rather lower rates of Iberian types with marked heterogeneity, but no English sample has less than 58% of Iberian samples...

In page 367 Oppenheimer states in relation to Zoë H Rosser's pan-European genetic distance map:

In Rosser's work, the closest population to the Basques is in Cornwall, followed closely by Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and then northern France

He reports work on linguistics by Forster and Toth which suggests that Indo-European languages began to fragment some 10,000 years ago. Oppenheimer claims that Celtic split from Indo-European earlier than previously suspected, some 6000 years ago, while English split from Germanic before the end of the Roman period, see Forster, Polzin and Rohl.


  • Rosser Z (and others), 2000. Y chromosome diversity in Europe. American Journal of Human Genetics 67, 1526.
  • Foster P and Toth A, 2003. Towards a phylogenic chronology of ancient Gaulish, Celtic and Indo-European. Proc of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 100, 9079.
  • Forster P, Polzin T and Rohl A, 2006. "Evolution of English basic vocabulary within the network of Germanic languages" in Forster and Renfrew (eds) "Phylogenic Methods and the Prehistory of Languages (McDonald Institute).
  1. Stephen Oppenheimer, "Myths of British ancestry", Prospect, October 2006, accessed 21 September 2006.

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