DNA from skeletons ‘challenges perceptions and understanding of ancient England’

Findings point to a diverse and complex culture in England during the early Middle Ages.

05 October 2022

Ancient DNA extracted from skeletons in burial sites across England shows evidence of mass migration from Europe and movement of people from as far as West Africa, challenging perceptions that English ancestors lived in small elite groups, archaeologists have said.

Research recently published by the team revealed the first people to call themselves English were largely descended from northern Europeans, mainly Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

But further investigation by scientists at the University of Central Lancashire also shows an individual having a genetic link to West Africa, pointing to a “diverse and complex” culture in England during the early Middle Ages.

The findings, published in a series of articles in Current Archaeology, come from one of the largest ancient DNA projects in Europe involving 460 people who were buried in graves between 200AD and 1300AD, 278 of whom were from England.

Professor Duncan Sayer, project leader and archaeologist from the University of Central Lancashire, told the PA news agency: “This reminds us that our past isn’t this little quaint village where everybody dances around a maypole.

“The research is a breakthrough: it challenges our perceptions and understanding of ancient England, showing how pivotal migration is to who we are and for the first time allows us to explore community histories in new ways.”

While DNA analysis shows significant population changes in England during the Middle Ages, it also sheds light on the individual stories of those buried.

One such “striking story” is that of a young girl buried in early 7th Century Kent, the researchers said.

Equal armed Brooch from West Heslerton
Equal armed Brooch from West Heslerton (Landscape Research Centre)

Dubbed Updown Girl because her remains were found near Updown farm in the village of Eastry, analysis suggests she was aged 10 or 11 when she died and was buried with typical grave goods – a pot, a bone comb, a knife and a spoon.

Findings reveal 33% of Updown Girl’s DNA points to West African ancestry, most closely resembling Esan or Yoruba groups.

Her African heritage came from her father’s side, possibly her grandad or great grandad, the researchers said.

Updown girl is buried near two women who, according to the experts, are likely to be her great aunts with Northern European ancestry.

Both women were buried with several objects including belt hanging sets, beads, knives, combs and spoons, all suggesting they were part of an affluent family from the period.

The fact that both the women and the girl were buried in the same way indicates that despite her different ancestry, the girl was treated equally as her other family members, the researchers said.

The excavators drawing of Updown Girl, Eastry Kent
The excavators drawing of Updown Girl, Eastry Kent (Kent Archaeology Research Unit)

Prof Sayer told PA: “We found the granddaughter of a migrant who is part of a family that is biologically Northern European.

“She is buried in exactly the same way as everybody else… this story really highlights that if we are looking at ethnicity, did not matter to these people.”

Other notable findings include the remains of a teenage boy found at West Heslerton, an early medieval cemetery in Yorkshire, with 100% Northern European ancestry.

The boy was buried with an armed brooch, an object with origins in Scandinavia.

Elsewhere in East Anglia, at a cemetery site near to RAF Lakenheath, there is a double grave which included two adolescents, a boy of around 15 years accompanied by a knife and buckle, buried next to a girl aged around 12 years.

Nearby is a third burial, an older man found with a spear, knife and pottery sherd.

DNA analysis indicates the older male was the adolescents’ father.

The researchers believe that given the man’s age, it is likely he was present at their burial.

Professor Sayer told PA: “Our work shows that this migration cannot be understood as one single event; rather, it’s made up of many different threads – of individual people and families adapting to new circumstances across the regions of Britain.

“It is amazing being able to weave those threads together to create the fabric of their stories and in doing so, the rich and complex tapestry of our own past.”

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