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Human Skulls Reveal New Clues About Early Anglo-Saxon Ancestry

A new 3D analysis of skulls found across Britain reveals when Germanic peoples first settled the island in large numbers, and what their relationship may have been like with the existing inhabitants.

(CN) --- The early ancestry of the peoples inhabiting Britain never has been quite settled. It’s known that large groups of Germanic tribes from continental Europe came over at some point between the fall of Rome and the rise of the English crown --- but who, how many and how they got on with the locals has been a source of debate for as long as anyone can remember.

Germanic settlers first flooded into Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., described in historical texts as an invasion from the continent. That “invasion” led to the formation of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group that would rule much of the island for the next roughly 500 years, until the Normans showed up. That’s also when the English language formed, which is itself based on an early form of German. Was it actually an invasion, though?

As it turns out, early Medieval Britain following the influx was much like modern-day Britain in that it was full of people from a diverse range of backgrounds, eventually united by a common language, culture and values, according to the authors of a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

“The most significant finding is that Anglo-Saxon identity was based on cultural practices and language, not genetics, since we found that the area that came to be called England was occupied by people of different ancestries who shared a common language and culture,” said Kimberly Plomp, a postdoctoral researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, in an email. “England is a country with an unusually high level of diversity in relation to ancestry, as anybody watching the current Euros soccer competition will readily appreciate. But of course, the vast majority of people living in the country speak the same language and share a large number of cultural values and practices.”

To determine the origins of the Germanic migrants, researchers employed a 3D analysis technique known as photogrammetry on the cranial base of 236 skulls dug up from archeological sites across Britain and Europe. The thinking goes that a person’s skull is more similar to their brother’s than to their cousin’s, and more similar to their cousin’s than to an unrelated stranger. In that way, researchers were able to piece together relationships between settlers and locals over time, and for far less money than traditional DNA analysis.

Photogrammetry with skull. (Photo by Kimberly Plomp)

“You can think of cranial base shape as a proxy for DNA,” Dr. Plomp said in an email. “At the moment, it's a lot cheaper to photograph crania and run the type of analyses we ran than it is to recover DNA from ancient skeletons. So, the method we used can be employed on larger samples, which is important for addressing scientific questions.”

The authors compared Anglo-Saxon skulls to those found in Britain pre-dating the Early Medieval period, along with Iron Age skulls recovered in Denmark --- home to a handful of German-speaking groups at the time. Based on that analysis, they believe between 66% and 75% of early Anglo-Saxons originally immigrated from northwest Europe, and between 25% and 33% were locals. Their analysis of middle Anglo-Saxon skulls, on the other hand, shows that between 50% and 70% were locals, while only 30% to 50% immigrated from continental Europe during that period.

That disparity suggests a drastic slowdown in the rate of immigration after an initial surge subsided --- why immigration slowed during that time is still unclear, however.

According to the authors, existing evidence from a variety of sources largely disagree on the Anglo-Saxon origin story. Historical texts claim the majority of Anglo-Saxons came from continental northwest Europe, yet stable isotope analyses suggest it was only a small minority. DNA analyses have also been less than clear and, depending on which study one cites, the results have varied wildly between 10% and 100%.

This type of 3D analysis of skulls may just be the missing piece to the puzzle. In the future, the authors want to run the same analysis on a larger number of skulls, including those from regions of Britain that weren’t sampled this time around. They believe the vastly divergent numbers found in past studies may in-part be due to differences in which regions new arrivals from the continent chose to settle.

“Our study suggests, therefore, that the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group comprised many individuals of continental northwest European ancestry but also many of local ancestry,” the study authors wrote. “Additionally, our study suggests that the relative number of individuals of continental northwest European ancestry and individuals of local ancestry changed through time. Intriguingly, it appears that ancestry in Early Medieval Britain was similar to what it is today — mixed and mutable.”

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