Great Britain and Ireland have rich, well-documented pasts, but where did the modern-day British come from? Was it the Romans? The Vikings, who famously invaded and ruled for a period, interbreeding with the locals? What about the Celts, the native people of Britain? According to a large-scale genetic study lead by the University of Oxford, Britain’s conquerors had less influence than we thought: Most white British people share about 30% of their DNA with modern Germans.
The study was 20 years in the making, and began with researchers collecting DNA samples from residents in Orkney in 1994 before moving across the British Isles. The participants were all white British, lived in rural areas and had four grandparents all born within 50 miles of each other. The researchers also analyzed data from 6,209 individuals across 10 European countries in order to compare their ancestry to the British.
What they found was that though groups like the Romans, Vikings and Normans had monumental historical impacts on the history of the islands, they didn’t leave much of a genetic impact. Rome may have once ruled half of modern England, but it’s unlikely many high-ranking roman officials settled and bred with the local Celts. The Vikings, who terrorized the island beginning in the 9th century, were said to have mixed genetically with the locals. That may have been the case, but there simply weren’t enough Vikings to have much genetic influence.
“There were very large numbers of people – hundreds of thousands – in those parts of Britain, so to have a substantial impact on genetics there would have to be very large numbers of them,” said Mark Robinson, an archaeologist from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and a co-author. “The fact that we don’t see that reflects the numbers rather than the relative allure or lack thereof of Scandinavian men to British women.”
Even the Normans, who famously invaded England from France in 1066, aren’t present the way you might imagine. While people living in southern and central England today share about 40% of their DNA with modern French people, the mixing happened well before 1066. Instead, analysis suggests that the mixing happened about 10,o00 years ago, after the last Ice Age.
The study answers some questions about the collapses of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon empires. Genetic patterns in Britain are largely defined by geography, and the disappearance of Celtic language and culture led many to believe that those people either retreated to Wales or were wiped out in a genocide. However, the genetic analysis suggests no such event may have occurred – even in strongly Celtic areas, at least 20% of the genetic makeup comes from Anglo-Saxon migrants. Rather than wiping out the Celtic people, they likely just interbred with them.
“Historical records, archeology, linguistics – all of those records tell us about the elites. It’s said that history is written by the winners,” said Prof Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford. “Genetics compliments that and is very different. It tells us what is happening to the masses… the ordinary folk.”