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)



9 thoughts 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!

  2. I wonder how much of this DNA research is influenced by later migrations such as the French Huguenot migration in the 16th and 17th centuries and massive Irish migration to the British mainland in the mid 19th century due to the Irish famine 1847-1949.
    The Irish gene pool was less affected by overseas invasion than mainland Britain especially people from the west of Ireland

    1. I do not know the answer, though I’d say a couple of things. Unlike the commercially available products, these studies I believe look for common markers, to link different populations. So it would need a study specifically looking for common Irish/English markers I guess. In the personal 123 & Me test I did, it had one category ‘Britain and Ireland’ which probably reflects your comment on the size of Irish migration. It would be interesting to find out more!

    2. According to the Huguenot Society website, approximately 50,000 Huguenots migrated to England in the 17th Century. In terms of the National genetic inheritance, that figure really isn`t hugely significant.

  3. At the end of the day the white British population are European, Europeans are bonded by their dna.
    Britain has been lucky by attracting the very best of Europe, that helped to make this Country.

  4. Why no DNA impact of Jutes or Danish Vikings? There were no European clusters to cover the Jutland portion of Denmark and northern Germany. What is the ‘ancestry profile’ of a Jute, Anglin or Danish Viking? They seem to be omitted from this population study, so it is not surprising that no generic input was found. The map of the UK also seemed to reflect a bias against the historic Danelaw area. These are my opinions, by one who is not trained in genetics. Suggest additional study using Y DNA analysis for Yorkshire and Jutland and possibly Normandy.

  5. As for the Huguenot contribution to the English gene pool, the aforementioned number of 50,000 (which I was unaware of before and is greatly appreciated) would be unlikely to have made any clear impact, as was implied. And overall, it clearly didn’t. However, I do find interesting that in one map, south Wales actually has a slightly higher percentage of Anglo-Saxon markers than the London area. Being that London was likely overrepresented in the Huguenot migration, I can’t help but think that group might have been partly responsible for that odd discrepancy, which, to be fair, isn’t substantial anyhow. Still, overall, I agree, the English, even in the capital and surrounding regions, are hardly Huguenots outside of a few possible markers in specific regions.

  6. Just an bit of info from someone who covered this study extensively in their dissertation…

    There’s a really interesting assumption made by the study about the input of Anglo-Saxon DNA. In essence, the study was able to detect a 30-40% chunk of broadly north European ancestry within the average modern Briton. The study therefore chalks this up to being of Anglo-Saxon origin, and concludes there was very little ‘Viking’ contribution. The fact is though, since the Anglo-Saxons and Danish Vikings were from around the same neck of the woods, its pretty much impossible to distinguish them genetically. So simply put, we have absolutely impossible to tell where this chunk of north European DNA came from! It could all be Anglo-Saxon, it could all be ‘Viking’, it could be a mix of the two, or it could even be from something else entirely. The take away here essentially being: it’s very hard to make conclusive assumptions with DNA evidence!

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