In a new study titled “Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Genomes from East England Reveal British Migration History” and published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers were able to fully map the level of Anglo-Saxon ancestry that modern British people possess, using DNA analysis from ancient skeletons.
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According to the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, skeletons of people buried in ancient graves near Cambridge were used to conduct whole-genome sequences of ancient British DNA, through which the researchers were able to establish that about one-third of British ancestors were Anglo-Saxon immigrants.
Part of the issues that confronted the researchers while working on the study was the need to know the scale of Anglo-Saxon migrations to ancient Britain, how they mixed or integrated with the local natives, and what part they played in British ancestry. Since historians and archaeologists had long debated this point, genomics from ancient skeletons was able to offer some insights into the distant past.
“By sequencing the DNA from ten skeletons from the late Iron Age and the Anglo-Saxon period, we obtained the first complete ancient genomes from Great Britain,” said Dr. Stephan Schiffels from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridgeshire and the Max Plank Institute in Germany.
“Comparing these ancient genomes with sequences of hundreds of modern European genomes, we estimate that 38 per cent of the ancestors of the English were Anglo-Saxons. This is the first direct estimate of the impact of immigration into Britain from the 5th to 7th Centuries AD and the traces left in modern England,” he added.
Older DNA studies suggested that between 10-95% Anglo-Saxons contributed to British ancestry during the late Iron Age, while a particular study even noted the Anglo-Saxons were segregated and not allowed to integrate with the local people; but this recent research shows these studies couldn’t have been entirely true and that the ancient immigrants mixed with British natives.
Using carbon dating technology to determine the age of the excavated Cambridgeshire skeletons, researchers were able to determine that the skeletons were of people that lived during the late Iron Age around 50BC and during the Anglo-Saxon period around 500-700 AD.
According to Dr. Duncan Sayer, archaeologist from the University of Central Lancashire, the research team combined archaeological evidences with DNA data to provide an estimate into how early Anglo-Saxons lived within the British society. He added that genome sequences of four skeletons from Oakington showed that two were Anglo-Saxon migrants; one was native British, and the fourth a mixture of both.
“The archaeological evidence shows that these individuals were treated the same way in death, and proves they were all well integrated into the Oakington Anglo-Saxon Community despite their different biological heritage,” Dr. Sayer revealed.
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This research was funded by the Australian Research Council, the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, and the Wellcome Trust.