Anglo-Saxon Migration Created the Early English Gene Pool

Anglo-Saxon. The British Isles have seen multiple periods of cultural changes over the centuries. Migration and political changes have vastly contributed to the rich history of the countries but particularly that of England. Between 400 and 800 AD, Vikings, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons poured into the region now known as the United Kingdom or UK. Up until this period, the largest numbers of migrants had of course been the Romans. Recent advancements in science have allowed us to dive deeper into this past.

Early English gene pool

●       Around 75% of the population of East and South of England came from Anglo-Saxon migrations.

●       Northern Europeans were the first people to identify themselves as English.

●       The migrants originated from continental regions especially from the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. 

●       The Europeans migrated to England between 400 and 800 AD.

Thanks to new DNA extraction protocols, researchers can now study ancient genomic variance using skeletal DNA. A recent study suggests that Anglo-Saxons made up approximately 75% of England’s population.

Map of Anglo-Saxon migration
The migrations according to Bede, who wrote some 300 years after the event; there is archeological evidence that the settlers in England came from many of these mainland locations

Further studies have revealed that around 50% of people in the East of England are descendants of the Anglo-Saxons. However, there is a different trend in the Southwest of England, Wales and Scotland. In these regions, the majority descend from the Celtic migrants.

Professor Ian Barnes, a Merit Researcher at History Museum London, explained, “it’s great that we’ve been able to contribute to this extensive study of early English, as there’s almost no ancient DNA (aDNA) work on the Anglo-Saxon period.”

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According to Professor Barnes, “The results are fascinating and flag up how significant the change in the population was at this time [400-800 CE].”

The results have been published in Nature.

History of Anglo-Saxon Migrations to England

Anglo-Saxon England, or early Medieval England (5th-11th century AD), is the period of history between the decline of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest of 1066. It was a time characterized by massive political changes in the English history.

The identity of England created by the Anglo-Saxon migrations survived for a very long time. A study concludes that Anglo-Saxons today contribute to a third of the English population. On the other hand, the British population’s Viking ancestry is only about 6%.

Western Europe was in a state of unrest during the 400s. As a result, the Roman Empire could not defend itself anymore. At that time, England mostly comprised of descendants of the Celtic tribes. However, there were significant contributions from other civilizations as well.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Britain
Southern Great Britain in AD 600 after the Anglo-Saxon settlement, showing England’s division into multiple petty kingdoms.

Over the next few hundred years, Europeans migrated to England. The migration from Europe contributed to the birth of Anglo-Saxon culture in England. There are multiple opinions on the nature of these migrations with some historians believing it a forced one, while others consider it a peaceful move.

According to a Nature study published in September 2022, researchers studied skeletal DNA in great detail. The results allowed them to map out the early gene pool of the United Kingdom.

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Dr. Selina Brace, a specialist in Ancient DNA (aDNA), explained the process, “when attempting to extract DNA from bone, we would typically begin by drilling a small hole into it using a drill similar to the kind a dentist might use.”

“’We remove a small amount of bone powder, using chemicals to break down the bone and extract the DNA. Finally, we prepare the DNA for sequencing using a library building process,” added Dr. Brace.

What does the research tell us?

When The Roman Empire fell to the ground, there were a lot of new arrivals in England. A large number of migrants came from northern Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

In the study, researchers found an additional wave of migrants with French Iron Age ancestry. In both waves, the immigrants preferred England’s East Coast. As a result, the people of East Anglia exhibited a large genetic contribution from that group.

Currently, there is no way to determine the total number of people who migrated. Interestingly, the research found no significant difference between the number of men and women migrants. Therefore, it is likely that people did not migrate as a result of military expeditions.

In some areas, Anglo-Saxons were buried separately from native Englishmen. However, there is evidence from other regions that the migrants integrated well, and it was common for men from these different groups to be buried with similar grave goods. However due to these varying results, it is unclear how the groups mingled socially. The researchers have a suggested further investigation into the gene pool of ancient Southern England, Wales and Scotland.