DNA records reveal mass migration from Europe into Anglo-Saxon Britain

In some parts of England in Anglo-Saxon times, more than three-quarters of the population’s ancestry could be traced to recent migration from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands


21 September 2022

The analysis of a grave at Issendorf cemetery in Germany

Landesmuseum Hannover

In Anglo-Saxon times, more than three-quarters of the ancestry of people in parts of England was from recent north European migrants.

The finding, which comes from sequencing the DNA of people buried in the UK and mainland Europe during this time period, may settle an ongoing debate about just how much migration happened in Anglo-Saxon times, says Duncan Sayer at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK.

The traditional view, based on written records and archaeological finds, is there was an influx of Europeans into Britain in Anglo-Saxon times – classed as from the end of Roman Empire control, at about AD 400, until 1066.

But more recently, there has been debate over just how many people migrated.

There could have been just small numbers of migrants, who then spread aspects of their culture, such as their buildings and pottery styles. “There are many respectable historians who think there was very little migration, says Robin Fleming at Boston College in Massachusetts.

To learn more, Sayer’s team sequenced the DNA of 460 people who were buried in graves between AD 200 and 1300, of whom 278 were from England.

This showed that during the 7th century AD, people buried in the east of England could trace 76 per cent of their ancestry to recent migration from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

This would be equivalent to someone having three of their four grandparents born in Europe, says Sayer’s colleague, Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Bodies taken from graves further to the west of England had a lower proportion of their ancestry from Europe, implying that the migrants first made their homes in the east.

Fleming says the findings confirm there was mass migration from Europe into some parts of Britain. “This does something a lot of us have been looking for.”

“This brings the idea of migration back onto the table again,” says Sayer.

Journal reference: Nature , DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05247-2

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