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Home SCIENCE Migration, not conquest, fueled the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England | Sciences

Migration, not conquest, fueled the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England | Sciences

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

But in the late 20th century, many archaeologists suspected that Bede, writing centuries later, had 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 derived more than three-quarters of their ancestry from Northern Europe.

The results address a long-standing debate over whether past cultural change indicates new people moving in or a largely unchanged population embracing new technologies or beliefs. With the Anglo-Saxons, the data points strongly to migration, says Cambridge University archaeologist Catherine Hills, who was not part of the research. The new data suggests “significant movement towards the British Isles…bringing us back to a fairly traditional picture of what’s going on.”

When 19th-century archaeologists began unearthing Anglo-Saxon homes and burials, their finds seemed to confirm the broad outlines of Bede’s story. Around 450 CE in western England, Roman-style pottery, tools, and 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 land, such as the helmets and weapons found at Sutton Hoo in eastern England.

“There is no denying that there was a huge change in material culture: Roman Britain looks very different from the Anglo-Saxon period 200 years later,” says Hills. Despite that, “most archaeologists have been critical of the idea of ​​migration,” rejecting it as an overly simplistic explanation of cultural change.

But the new DNA analysis revives him. Together with previously published DNA, samples from more than 20 cemeteries along England’s east coast suggest a large-scale rapid migration from northern Europe, beginning no later than 450 AD. “Some Anglo-Saxon sites look almost 100% continental European,” 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 predominantly local DNA, suggesting that immigration and status were not linked in the Anglo-Saxon period.duncan sayer

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

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

That doesn’t mean Bede got it all right, either. The tombs do not tell a clear story of armed conquest. Even people with little continental DNA were buried Anglo-Saxon style, suggesting they willingly adopted the new culture. And the DNA shows that both women and men migrated, a finding supported by the results of other researchers.

The team also found that many people had a mix of DNA from continental Europe and eastern Britain, suggesting that intermarriage and integration lasted for centuries. A high-status woman in her 20s of mixed ancestry was buried near modern Cambridge under a prominent mound with silver jewellery, amber beads and a whole cow. Such evidence suggests more complexity than simple conquest, says co-author Duncan Sayer, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire. “We are a million miles away from the hypothesis of an invasion; it’s not about a bunch of guys getting on boats with guns and taking over territory,” he says.

Family relationships within cemeteries also point to mass immigration. At one site, three generations of people with all Northern European DNA were buried together. “I suspect that there are families, or even small villages, that get up and move,” Sayer says, in keeping with evidence in northern Germany of settlements ending suddenly in the fifth or sixth centuries CE. Researchers have proposed climatic changes and pressure from other groups pushed people to migrate, and that the end of Roman control opened up new opportunities in England.

Traces of West British and Irish ancestry in people buried on the Continent also suggest reverse migration, with descendants of immigrants returning after generations in Britain. The results undermine the idea of ​​Britain as an isolated island, disturbed only occasionally by invasions. “Actually, the North Sea was a highway, where people came and went,” says Hills. “Perhaps mobility is a more normal human state than we think.”


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