The Anglo-Saxon migration: new insights from genetics

Newswise – Nearly three hundred years after the Romans left, scholars like Bede wrote about the Angles and the Saxons and their migrations to the British Isles. Scholars from many disciplines, including archaeology, history, linguists, and genetics, have debated what his words might have described and the scale, nature, and impact of human migration at the time.

New genetic results now show that around 75 per cent of the population in eastern and southern England were made up of migrant families whose ancestors must have come from continental North Sea areas, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. In addition, these families blended with the existing population of Britain, but more importantly, this integration varied from region to region and from parish to parish.

“With 278 ancient genomes from England and hundreds more from Europe, we have now gained really fascinating insights into the history of populations and individuals in post-Roman times,” says Joscha Gretzinger, one of the main authors of the study. “We now have an idea not only of the magnitude of the migration, but also of how it played out in communities and families.” Using published genetic data from more than 4,000 ancient and 10,000 modern-day Europeans, Gretzinger and colleagues identified subtle genetic differences between the closely related groups living in the old North Sea region.

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Migrants mixed with the local population

Upon arrival, the migrants mixed with the local population. In one case, researchers at an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Buckland near Dover were able to reconstruct a family tree spanning at least four generations and identify the point at which migrants and locals intermarried. This family showed a high level of interaction between the two gene pools. Overall, the researchers observed burials of prominent status, both local and migrant, in the cemeteries studied.

The interdisciplinary team of over 70 authors was able to integrate archaeological data with these new genetic results, which showed that immigrant women were more likely to be buried with artifacts than local women, particularly when considering items such as brooches and beads. Interestingly, men with guns have been found to share both genetic origins equally. These differences were locally mediated by prominent burials or wealthy graves seen across the range of origins. For example, a woman buried with a full cow in Cambridgeshire was genetically mixed, with mostly local ancestry.

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Duncan Sayer, archaeologist from the University of Central Lancashire and lead author of the study, says: “We see significant differences in how this migration has affected communities. In some places we see clear signs of active integration between natives and immigrants, as in the case of Buckland near Dover or Oakington in Cambridgeshire. But in other cases, like Apple Down in West Sussex, we see people of immigrant and local ancestry buried separately in the cemetery. Perhaps this is evidence of some degree of social segregation in this place.”

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Effects of this historic migration on the English of today

The new data also allowed the team to consider the impact of this historic migration today. Notably, modern-day Englishmen derive only 40 percent of their DNA from these historic continental ancestors, while 20 to 40 percent of their genetic profile likely derives from France or Belgium. This genetic component can be seen in the archaeological individuals and in the graves containing Frankish objects found in early medieval graves, particularly in Kent.

“It remains unclear whether this additional ancestry related to Iron Age France is related to some point migration events such as the Norman conquest, or whether it was the result of centuries of mobility across the English Channel,” says Stephan Schiffels, lead author of the study. “Future work, specifically targeting the Middle Ages and later, will unveil the nature of this additional genetic signal.

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