Genetic study provides new insights into Angl

image: Funerary objects from burial tomb 3532 in the cemetery of Issendorf.
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Credit: Landesmuseum Hanover

The Archaeogenetics Research Group at the University of Huddersfield played a key role in the largest genetic study to date of early medieval Europe.

The study was carried out by an interdisciplinary team of more than 70 geneticists and archaeologists, led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the University of Central Lancashire, with the help and expertise of the group research in archaeogenetics of the University. The team examined in detail one of the greatest demographic transformations of the post-Roman world.

Following their analysis of over 400 individuals from ancient Britain, Ireland, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, the research showed that there was a large-scale migration flow of the continental region from the North Sea to the east of England during the Anglo-Saxon period. , beginning about 1500 years ago.

Almost 500 years after the departure of the Romans, early historians like the Venerable Bede wrote of the Angles and Saxons and their migrations to Britain. But over the past century, opinions about what happened have become polarized among historians and archaeologists. Was this really a large-scale migration from the Continent, or was it more of a conquest by a small warrior elite?

The new genetic results now show that three-quarters of the early medieval population in the east of England were made up of migrants whose ancestors came from continental regions bordering the North Sea. Moreover, as the analysis of mitochondrial DNA inherited from the mother by Huddersfield specialist Dr Maria Pala demonstrated, the immigrants were made up of as many women as men – in other words, families entire were involved.

Migrants intermarried with the local population, but with variations from place to place

These families interbred with the existing population of Britain, but this integration varied greatly from region to region. For example, at West Heslerton, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in North Yorkshire excavated over several decades by Professor Dominic Powlesland, most ancestors came from the Continent, while at the contemporary post-Roman site of Worth Matravers in Dorset, excavated by Bob Kenyon and Lilian Louche, there were hardly any.

However, most Anglo-Saxon sites in eastern and southern England fall somewhere in between. Dr Ceiridwen Edwards, who runs the Ancient DNA Facility in Huddersfield, has studied the site of Apple Down in Sussex. This cemetery had nearly 50% continental ancestry but, unusually, there were distinct burial styles for people of local and immigrant ancestry, suggesting some level of social separation, at least at this site.

“With 278 ancient genomes from England and hundreds more from Europe, we have now gained some truly fascinating insights into population scale and individual histories in post-Roman times,” says the PhD researcher Joscha Gretzinger, who led the study with Dr Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute and Professor Duncan Sayer at UCLan.

Also, at the same time, the Anglo-Saxons were far from the only people shaping the ancestry of the English. The team estimated that modern-day English people derive only around 40% of their DNA from these medieval continental ancestors.

Director of the Center for Evolutionary Genomics Research, Professor Martin Richards, leads the Archaeogenetics Research Group at the University of Huddersfield and says this research has only been made possible by a huge advance in ancient technologies of DNA sequencing.

“Resolving the question of the English colonies has been a dream of mine since I started working in archaeogenetics three decades ago,” Professor Richards said. “It has finally become possible thanks to the incredible advances in ancient DNA sequencing technologies that have been made in recent years.”

The work at Huddersfield was funded through a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Fellowship scheme awarded to Professor Richards and Dr Maria Pala, and a Leverhulme Trust Project Grant awarded to Dr Ceiridwen Edwards.

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