Origins of the British – a recent study

British origins.001There’s a fascinating article by Leslie et al. and map created by a research project funded by the Wellcome trust. It’s all about creating a genetic map of the British Isles, to challenge or maybe confirm all those stories we have in the British Isles about where we come from.

It’s always a little dangerous of course to pick up an article from the paper, since I can’t claim to have a proper handle on the intricacies of the research but it’s definitely worth a read. The thing is that it seems to chime with so much of our received history; as well as providing a few insights.

And then Stuart, a History of England listener, and clearly a man with a brain has also done some work looking at the data, and representing some of it much more clearly. The image allows you to see more of the detailed European origins data collected correlated with the British data.

The broad conclusions seem to be that:

  • they support what we know about historical migrations – i.e. that English ancestry is heavily influence by migration from Anglo Saxons.
  • But the evidence points not to a replacing of the local population by the new arrivals – very much the opposite, the migrants clearly assimilated the local population.
  • It shows there’s a difference between England and Wales and Scotland.
  • But is also throws up some interesting points – there doesn’t seem to be a significant influence from the Danish Viking migrations; there’s no evidence of a significantly different group we might call the Jutes, always the most questioned part of  Bede’s famous entry.

There’s more detail below if you want to read on – and of course nothing beats going to the original paper! The conclusions lifted from the paper with some comments from me…

  • The majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry).

So that’s interesting. It confirms the idea of the Anglo saxon invasions, but also debunks the idea that the invaders wiped out the British population. Some of the variation about what percentage comes from how you interpret the DEN18 and FRA17 data; it could be that these are influenced by the data about saxon migrants – and if so the percentage of Saxon migrants would be much higher, up to 50%. I was tempted to think that FRA17 could be something to do with the Normans, but apparently this is a genetic marker very widespread in Britain (except Wales), and very early – so more likely to be from early Anglo Saxon markers. There is no significant, distinctive marker from the Norman invasions.

  • The population in Orkney emerged as the most genetically distinct, with 25% of DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. This shows clearly that the Norse Viking invasion (9th century) did not simply replace the indigenous Orkney population.

The Orkneys sound worth more than a few studies of their own! on a sort of cross roads for travellers and invaders from Scandinavia.

  • The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age than do other people in the UK.
  • There is no obvious genetic signature of the Danish Vikings, who controlled large parts of England (“The Danelaw”) from the 9th century.

I’d seen an earlier study that did show groups that seemed to correspond with Bede’s divisions. No longer it seems! And you’ll notice there’s no room in this for the Jutes!

  • There is genetic evidence of the effect of the Landsker line – the boundary between English-speaking people in south-west Pembrokeshire (sometimes known as “Little England beyond Wales”) and the Welsh speakers in the rest of Wales, which persisted for almost a millennium.

The Norman invasions of southern wales from the 11th century?

  • The analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales.
  • Many of the genetic clusters show similar locations to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around end of the 6th century, after the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting these tribes and kingdoms may have maintained a regional identity for many centuries

The original article is attached here, with some helpful highlights for key bits from Stuart!

Download Leslie et al Nature edited (1)



One thought on “Origins of the British – a recent study

  1. Real good work from Stuart putting this all in context thanks. I find this sort of thing very interesting, makes you want to get your own DNA looked at!

Leave a Reply