The Anglo-Saxon migration: New insights from genetics

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Almost 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 of many disciplines, including archaeology, history, linguists and genetics, have debated what his words might have described, and what the scale, the nature and the impact of human migration were at that time.

Grave goods from inhumation grave 3532 at Issendorf cemetery in Lower-Saxony, Germany. Individuals buried at Issendorf cemetery during the Middle Ages are genetically closely related with people who migrated into England during the Anglo-Saxon period [Credit: © Landesmuseum Hannover]

New genetic results now show that around 75 percent of the population in Eastern and Southern England was made up of migrant families whose ancestors must have originated from continental regions bordering the North Sea, including the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. What is more, these families interbred with the existing population of Britain, but importantly this integration varied from region to region and community to community.

Grave goods from inhumation grave 3532 at Issendorf cemetery [Credit: © Landesmuseum Hannover]

“With 278 ancient genomes from England and hundreds more from Europe, we now gained really fascinating insights into population-scale and individual histories during post-Roman times,” says Joscha Gretzinger, a lead author of the study. “Not only do we now have an idea of the scale of migration, but also how it played out in communities and families.” Using published genetic data from more than 4,000 ancient and 10,000 present-day Europeans, Gretzinger and colleagues identified subtle genetic differences between the closely related groups inhabiting the ancient North Sea region.

Migrants intermixed with the local population

Upon arrival, the migrants intermixed with the local population. In one case, in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery from Buckland near Dover, researchers were able to reconstruct a family tree across at least four generations and identify the point in time when migrants and locals intermarried. This family showed a large degree of interaction between the two gene pools. Overall, the researchers witnessed burials of prominent status across the studied cemeteries of both local and migrant origin.

An early Anglo-Saxon grave with pottery vessel, brooches and a Roman Spoon. This grave 66 from Oakington Cambridgeshire contained a woman of mixed ancestry [Credit: © Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire]

The interdisciplinary team consisting of over 70 authors was able to integrate archaeological data with these new genetic results, which revealed that women of immigrant origin were buried with artifacts more often than women of local origin, especially considering items such as brooches and beads. Interestingly, men with weapons were found to have both genetic origins equally often. These differences were locally mediated with prominent burials or wealthy graves seen across the range of origins. For example, a woman buried with a complete cow in Cambridgeshire was genetically mixed, with majority local ancestry.

Archaeologists excavate a complicated triple burial while working at Oakington Cambridgeshire. These three women were not related to each other, and each had a different proportion of WBI (Western Britain and Ireland) and CNE (Continental North European) ancestry [Credit: © Duncan Sayer, University of Central Lancashire]

Duncan Sayer, archaeologist from the University of Central Lancashire and a lead author of the study says, “We see considerable variation in how this migration affected communities. In some places, we see clear signs of active integration between locals and immigrants, as in the case of Buckland near Dover, or Oakington in Cambridgeshire. Yet in other cases, like Apple Down in West Sussex, we see that people with immigrant and local ancestry were buried separately in the cemetery. Perhaps this is evidence of some degree of social separation at this site.”

Impact of this historic migration on present-day English people

With the new data, the team could also consider the impact of this historic migration today. Notably the present-day English derive only 40 percent of their DNA from these historic continental ancestors, whereas 20 to 40 percent of their genetic profile likely came from France or Belgium. This genetic component can be seen in the archaeological individuals and in the graves with Frankish objects found in early Medieval graves, particularly in Kent.

Family tree reconstruction featuring integration of local ancestry into an immigrant kin group. The genetic pedigree of 13 related individuals at Dover Buckland. Indicated are the mtDNA haplogroups, Y-chromosome haplogroups, and associated grave goods of each individual. Males are depicted as squares, females as circles [Credit: Stephan Schiffels, 2022]

“It remains unclear whether this additional ancestry related to Iron Age France is connected to a few punctuated migration events, such as the Norman conquest, or whether it was the result of centuries-long mobility across the English Channel,” says Stephan Schiffels, lead senior author of the study. “Future work, specifically targeting the medieval period and later will reveal the nature of this additional genetic signal.

The research is published in Nature.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft [September 21, 2022]

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