DNA From Skeletons Reveals Large Migration to Early Medieval England

A new study could close a long-standing debate about movement of people post-Roman rule

Goods from a grave site at Issendorf cemetery in Lower-Saxony, Germany.
Goods from a grave site at Issendorf cemetery in Lower-Saxony, Germany.  Landesmuseum Hannover

In the 19th century, archaeologists in England unearthed remains that dated to the era after Roman rule, which ended around 400 C.E. The items revealed a shift from Roman artifacts to those originating in present-day Germany and the Netherlands. In that era, Roman-style tools and pieces of pottery were replaced with northern European jewelry, swords and architecture.

“You can’t deny there was a big shift in material culture—Roman Britain looks very different from the Anglo-Saxon period 200 years later,” Catherine Hills, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England, tells Science’s Andrew Curry.

But as for what led to this change, historians have long been divided. Many archaeologists have rejected the idea of a mass migration as the cause. After all, just a small number of migrants could have introduced their culture to the island, writes New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

Now, a new study of past DNA and archaeological remains provides evidence that a sizeable migration occurred from northern Europe to early medieval England (also known by the ahistorical term “Anglo-Saxon England”).

The research, published last week in the journal Nature, may finally put to rest this uncertainty about whether a small or large amount of migration took place, says Duncan Sayer, a co-author of the new study and an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire in England, to New Scientist.

The new data suggest “significant movement into the British Isles,” Hills, who was not involved with the new research, tells Science.

Recent advances in extracting DNA from long-dead skeletons enabled this study, which is among the first to examine genes from early medieval England, writes James Ashworth for the Natural History Museum in London, where several of the paper’s authors work.

An early medieval English grave with a skeleton, pottery vessel, brooches and a Roman spoon.
An early medieval English grave with a pottery vessel, brooches and a Roman spoon. Duncan Sayer

The team studied DNA from skeletal remains of 460 northwestern Europeans dated between 200 and 1300 C.E., including 278 from England.

They found “a substantial increase of continental northern European ancestry in early medieval England,” primarily in the eastern region, the authors write. They traced up to 76 percent of the ancestry of the remains from eastern England to migration from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands across the North Sea, per New Scientist.

“Some Anglo-Saxon sites look almost 100 percent continental European,” Joscha Gretzinger, the first author of the study and a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, tells Science. “The only explanation is a large amount of people coming in from the North Sea zone.”

The new evidence suggests the migration was not due to a military takeover, in contrast to what some experts had previously thought. Genetic analysis points to centuries of intermarriage, and one grave site hosted three generations of people with northern European DNA, according to Science. “I suspect there are families, or even small villages, getting up and moving,” Sayer tells Science.

Robin Fleming, a medieval historian at Boston College who did not contribute to the research, tells New Scientist the findings confirm that a mass migration occurred. “This does something a lot of us have been looking for,” she says.

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