Migration, not conquest, drove the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England | Science


In the eighth century CE, an English monk named Bede wrote the history of the island, claiming that Rome’s decline around 400 CE paved the way for an invasion from the east. The Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes of what is now northwestern Germany and southern Denmark “came to the island, and they began to increase so much that they became terrible to the natives”.

But by the end of the 20th century, many archaeologists suspected Bede, writing centuries later, of having exaggerated the scale of the invasion. Instead, they envisioned a small migration of a warrior elite, who imposed their imported culture on the existing population. Now, an extensive genomic studypublished this week in Nature, suggests that Bede may have been at least partially right. New DNA samples from 494 people who died in England between 400 and 900 CE show that they derive more than three-quarters of their ancestry from northern Europe.

The findings address a long-standing debate over whether past cultural shifts signal the arrival of new people or a largely unchanged population adopting new technologies or beliefs. With the Anglo-Saxons, the data strongly points to migration, says Cambridge University archaeologist Catherine Hills, who was not involved in the research. The new data suggests “significant movement in the British Isles…bringing us back to a fairly traditional picture of what is happening”.

When 19th-century archaeologists began digging up Anglo-Saxon houses and burials, their finds seemed to confirm the broad outlines of Bede’s story. Around 450 CE in western England pottery, tools and Roman-style architecture declined; jewelry, swords, and houses began to resemble those found along the North Sea coast in what is now Germany and the Netherlands. Some styles evolved into spectacular forms in the new country, such as the helmets and weapons found at Sutton Hoo in the east of England.

“You can’t deny there’s been a big shift in material culture – Roman Britain is very different from the Anglo-Saxon period 200 years later,” Hills says. Despite this, “most archaeologists have criticized the idea of ​​migration”, dismissing it as an overly simplistic explanation of cultural change.

But the new DNA analysis revives him. Along with previously published DNA, samples from more than 20 cemeteries along the east coast of England suggest a rapid, large-scale migration from northern Europe, beginning no later than 450 CE. “Some Anglo-Saxon sites look almost 100% like continental Europe,” says co-author Joscha Gretzinger, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “The only explanation is a large number of people coming from the North Sea area.”

A woman buried with jewelry and a whole cow had mostly local DNA, suggesting that immigration and status were unrelated to Anglo-Saxon times.Duncan Sayer

The displacement of the population led to enormous cultural changes, some of which reverberate today. “There was a relatively dramatic period of language change,” says Helena Hamerow, an archaeologist from the University of Oxford. The Celtic languages ​​and Latin soon gave way to Old English, a Germanic language that shares vocabulary with German and Dutch. “This suggests a significant number of Germanic speakers in the lowlands of Britain,” says Hamerow.

The Vikings who crossed the North Sea a few centuries later left fewer traces, representing around 6% of the genes of modern English people, compared to between 30% and 40% for the Anglo-Saxons.

That’s not to say Bede is entirely right, either. The tombs do not tell a clear story of armed conquest. Even people with little continental DNA were buried in Anglo-Saxon fashion, suggesting that they voluntarily adopted the new culture. And DNA shows both immigrant women and men, a finding supported by the results of other researchers.

The team also found that many individuals had a mixture of continental European and eastern British DNA, suggesting that intermarriage and integration went on for centuries. A high-ranking woman in her 20s with mixed ancestry has been laid to rest near modern Cambridge under a prominent mound with silver jewelry, amber beads and a whole cow. Such evidence suggests more complexity than mere conquest, says co-author Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire. “We’re millions of miles away from a hypothetical invasion – it’s not a bunch of guys getting in boats with guns and taking over territory,” he says.

Family relationships within the cemeteries also indicate massive immigration. At one site, three generations of people with all the Northern European DNA were buried next to each other. “I suspect there are families, or even small villages, getting up and moving,” says Sayer, in line with evidence in northern Germany of the sudden end of settlements in the fifth or sixth century AD. time. Researchers have proposed climate change and pressure from other groups caused people to migrate and that the end of Roman control opened up new opportunities in England.

Traces of British and West Irish ancestry among those buried on the Continent also suggest reverse migration, with descendants of migrants returning after generations to Britain. The results undermined the idea of ​​Britain as an isolated island, only occasionally disrupted by invasions. “In fact, the North Sea was a highway, where people came and went,” says Hills. “Perhaps mobility is a more normal human state than we realize.”


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