Not so vicious invaders? What genetic mapping tells us about our past

genetic map

The first fine-scale living genetic map has big implications for archaeology.

Last week, an international team of researchers released the very first ‘fine-scale’ genetic map of the UK. To make it, they took samples from 2,000 people with ‘deep roots’ in an area (those whose four grandparents had all been born within a 50 mile radius of eachother), grouped them based on genetic similarity and then plotted them geographically.

What they found was a strong correlation between genetic clusters and geographical groupings, many of which correlate with to tribal divisions in place at the end of the 6th century, prompting headlines like “Britons still live in Anglo-Saxon kingdoms”.

As always with this kind of genetic geography, things can get a bit silly. But misrepresentations aside, it’s a story that exposes both of the durability of regional identity, and the fine lattice of immigration that makes up this isle. As the director of the study pointed out on Sky News, “it reminds us that everyone in Britain is an immigrant. It is only a question of when people arrived.”


Now, the fact that people tend to stay put once they get somewhere is hardly a surprising result, but it did throw up some results that were surprising. So, what does it all mean for archaeology?

The Celts were not a single genetic group

‘Celtic’ genetic groups in Scotland, Northern Island, Wales and Cornwall are amongst the most different from each other, and not the most similar, with the Celts in Cornwall in particular having more similarities with English groups.

The Vikings barely left a genetic trace outside of Orkney

South Eastern, Central, and Eastern England each have a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxons (at 10%-20%), and in the Orkney Isle, the most genetically distinct group, 25% of DNA comes from Viking invaders from Norway.

These percentages provide strong evidence to show that invaders and native populations intermarried and co-existed. In addition, there is surprisingly no obvious genetic signature left by the Vikings in the rest of the areas under their control.

genetic map europe

Not so vicious invaders

The evidence goes to suggest that rather than a course of eradication by invading forces, people came and went, or integrated. In fact, in some ways it looks to settle a prominent historical controversy. The Vikings in particular have a bad rep when it comes to rape, pillaging and plundering, but the relatively low percentages of their DNA in the wider population indicate that they were not quite the aggressors they have been made out to be.

So what does it all mean for archaeology in the long-term?

Not only does it change perceptions about some key groups that tend to get a lot of attention in the press, in the longer term this map could potentially help reveal more specific details on where an archaeological skeleton came from. A Celtic burial could be further categorised as Scottish or Welsh depending on the DNA similarities. And it doesn’t have to stop there!

Studying ancient diseases (and modern ones too!)

By increasing the study into Europe, more light could be shed on migration patterns into the UK and how this differs regionally.

It’s also been suggested that this new information could have a great influence on how we study disease in history. Future studies could focus on more specific genetic clusters in order to investigate how diseases affected each group differently. Any significant findings could in turn prove useful for future medicine.

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Written by Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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