DNA study debunks long-held theory about how ancient Britons lived
when you imagine life of ordinary people in ancient Britain, you would be forgiven for imagining quaint villages where everyone looked and talked alike. But a recent study may change the way historians think about early medieval communities.
The most of what we know on English history after the fall of the Roman Empire is limit to archaeological discoveries. There are only two contemporary accounts of this post-Roman period. Gildas (6th century) and Bede (8th century) were both monks who give narrow descriptions of the invasion by people from the mainland, and neither provides an objective account.
My team’s study, published in Nature, it changes. We analyzed DNA from the remains of 460 people from sites across northern Europe and found evidence of mass migration from Europe to England and the movement of people from as far away as England. ‘West Africa. Our study combined information from artifacts and human remains.
This meant we could drill down into the data to explore the human details of the migration.
Journey into England’s past
This paper revealed that approximately 76% of the genetic ancestry of the early medieval English population we studied came from what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia – the Continental Northern Europe. This number is an average taken from 278 ancient skeletons sampled from the south and east coasts of England. This is strong evidence of the mass migration to the British Isles after the end of Roman administration.
One of the most startling discoveries was the skeleton of a young girl who died around the age of ten or 11, found at Updown near Eastry in Kent. She was buried in the typical early 7th century style with a finely made pot, a knife, a spoon and a bone comb. Its DNA, however, tells a more complex story. In addition to 67% mainland Northern European ancestry, she also had 33% West Africa ancestry. Its African ancestor was most closely related to the modern Esan and Yoruba population of southern Nigeria.
Evidence of extensive trading relations with Kent at this time is known. The garnets of many brooches found in this region came from Afghanistan, for example. And the movement of the Updown girl’s ancestors was likely tied to these ancient trade routes.
keep it in the family
Two women buried nearby were sisters of mostly continental northern European ancestry. They were related to the Updown girl – possibly her aunts. The fact that all three were buried the same way, with pins, buckles and belt hangers, suggests that the people who buried them chose to highlight the similarities between Updown’s daughter and her older female relatives when they dressed them and located the burials next to each other. They treated her like a relative, a girl from their village, because that was what she was.
The aunts also shared close kinship with a young man buried with artifacts that implied social status, including a spearhead and buckle. The graves of these four people were all close to each other. They were buried in a prominent position marked by small tumulus mounds (old burials covered with a large mound of earth and stones). The visibility of this place, combined with their dress and DNA, marks these people as part of an important local family.
The most thoroughly studied site – Buckland, near Dover in Kent – had kinship groups that spanned at least four generations.
A family group of mainland Northern European ancestry is notable as they quickly integrated with the British and West Irish. In a few generations, traditions have merged between peoples born far from each other. A 100% Western British and Irish woman had two daughters with a 100% Mainland Northern European man. British and West Irish ancestry entered this family again a generation later, in nearly 50/50 grandchildren of mixed ancestry. Items, including brooches and similar weapons, have been found in graves on both sides of this family, indicating shared values between people of different ancestry.
This family was buried in close graves for three generations. That is, until a third-generation woman was buried in another group of graves north of the family group. One of her children, a boy, died around the age of eight to ten. He was buried in the group of graves that included his maternal grandparents and their close family, and she laid her youngest child in a grave surrounded by her family. But when the mother died, her adult children chose a location close to their father for his grave. They considered her part of the paternal side of the family.
Another Buckland woman had a unique experience haplotype, a set of DNA variants that tend to be inherited together. Both males and females inherit their haplogroup from their mother. Her DNA therefore suggests that she had no maternal family in the community with which she was buried.
The chemical isotopes of her teeth and bones indicate that she was not born in Kent but moved there when she was 15-25. A pendant adorned with gold, called a bractpossibly of Scandinavian origin, was found in his grave.
This suggests that she left Scandinavia in her youth and her mother’s family did not travel with her. She most likely had an exogamous marriage (marriage outside of your social group).
What is striking is the physical distance that this partnership has bridged. This woman traveled 700 miles, including a voyage across the North Sea, to raise her family.
Rethinking British History
These people were migrants and children of migrants who traveled in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries. Their stories are of community and intermarriages. Genetic data indicate deep mobility in a period of mass migration, and archaeological details help to complete the family stories. The migration didn’t happen at the same time, and it didn’t all come from the same place.
Early Anglo-Saxon culture was a mixture of ideas, intermarriage and movement. This genetic fusion and cultural diversity created something new in southern and eastern England after the end of the Roman Empire.