My father, born in the northern English port of Liverpool (a likely landing place for seafarers) was tall, blonde, with piercing blue eyes, a Roman nose and flat back of the head. As a girl I fantasized that he was of Viking descent, and I a northern princess with a fine thermostat: I was never able to tolerate a hot climate, feeling moribund when the temperature is above 85 degrees and at my best when there’s a nip in the air.
Twenty years ago scientists at Oxford University, England, began collecting DNA samples in Orkney, islands off the coast of Scotland, gradually working their way across the British Isles. From this first detailed study of the genetics of British people, some surprising results emerged. The participants selected for this study were white British, living in rural areas and having four grandparents born within 50 miles of each other. Since a quarter of our genetics comes from each of our grandparents, this represented as accurate a picture of British genetics at the start of the 20th century as can be assessed in retrospect.
Sir Walter Bodmer of the University of Oxford who conceived the study, said “We’re reaching back in time to before most of the mixing of the population, which would fog history.” Professor Peter Donnelly, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at Oxford said “It has long been known that human populations differ genetically, but never before have we been able to observe such exquisite and fascinating detail.”
The population of Orkney was found to be the most genetically distinct, with 25% of DNA resulting from Norwegian ancestors who invaded the islands in the 9th century. The Welsh also had striking differences to the rest of Britain, their DNA most closely resembling that of the earliest hunter-gatherers who arrived after the Ice Age, nearly 10,000 years ago.
The study, published this month in the journal Nature, gave the surprising conclusion that the Romans, Vikings and Normans who made their presence felt in Britain for hundreds of years, left barely a trace on our DNA. The Anglo-Saxons were the only conquering force to substantially alter the country’s genetic makeup, with most white British people owing almost 30% of their DNA to the ancestors of modern-day Germans.
The study of more than 2,000 people discovered that people living in southern and central England typically share about 40% of their DNA with the French, 11% with the Danes and 9% with the Belgians. The French contribution however was not linked to the Norman invasion of 1066, but to a previously unknown wave of migration some time after the end of the last Ice Age
The study showed no genetic basis for a single Celtic group linking people living in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. The idea of regional identity differing is confirmed by separate genetic clusters. “The Celtic regions that one might have expected to be genetically similar…are among the most different in our study,” said Mark Robinson, an archaeologist from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study. “It’s stressing their genetic difference; it’s not saying there aren’t cultural similarities.”
The team also looked at data from 6,209 people from 10 European countries to discover the contributions their ancestors made to the genetic makeup of the British. The analysis shows that despite the huge historical effect of the Roman Viking and Norman invasions, these events did little to alter the basic biological makeup of people living in Britain. The analysis supports records suggesting that few high-ranking Roman officials settled in Britain, remaining largely aloof from the local Celts.
The Danish Vikings, who ruled over large swathes of Britain after 865 AD, are known to have married locals, but this study shows that the conquering force, while powerful, must have comprised relatively few in number. “To have a substantial impact on genetics there would have to be very large numbers of them,” said Robinson.
Historically there has been a long-running dispute about the nature of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. Some point to the replacement of the Celtic language by Anglo-Saxon and the shift towards north-west German farming and pottery styles as suggesting local populations must have retreated to Wales or even been wiped out in genocide. Robinson commented: “[Our results] suggest that at least 20% of the genetic makeup in this area is from Anglo-Saxon migrants and that there was mixing. It is not genocide or complete disappearance of Britons.”
The authors suggest that DNA analysis should be regarded as a powerful historical tool, sometimes providing more impartial information than traditional sources. “Historical records, archeology, linguistics – all of those records tell us about the elites. It’s said that history is written by the winners,” said Donnelly. “Genetics complements that and is very different. It tells us what is happening to the masses…the ordinary folk.”
My grandfather was an engineer building the railways and his father was the village blacksmith: practical men with deft hands. Our family name was Naylor. (I picture the blacksmith’s hammer driving nails into horseshoes.) My father maintained airplanes in WW1 France in the Royal Flying Corps, then served as engineer in the merchant navy for seven years. His desire to travel which I and my sons inherited, was in his blood. Perhaps we do have Viking genes in our DNA after all.