DNA samples from more than 2,000 people from rural areas of the UK have helped create the first fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles. An international team, led by researchers from the University of Oxford, UCL (University College London) compared these DNA samples with more than 6,000 Europeans. They confirmed many known historical migration patterns and provided more information on them.

Professor Peter Donnelly, who co-led the research, 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. By coupling this with our assessment of the genetic contributions from different parts of Europe we were able to add to our understanding of UK population history.”

Researchers found most of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single genetic group. A significant DNA contribution of up to 40% came from Anglo-Saxon migrations. This finding addresses the the controversy surrounding Anglo-Saxons and the existing populations. The findings show Anglo-Saxons didn’t replace them, they intermarried with the existing population.

Professor Mark Robinson, an archaeologist from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said, “The results give an answer to the question we had never previously thought we would be able to ask about the degree of British survival after the collapse of Roman Britain and the coming of the Saxons.”

gene map british isles

The Welsh can claim the closest similarity to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age.

Researchers also found no obvious genetic signature of the Danish Vikings. This group controlled large parts of England during the 9th century. The findings suggest Vikings did not settle England in large numbers.

One part of the UK does have some Norwegian DNA. Orkney is the most genetically distinct population in the UK with 25% of its DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors. Once again, this shows that the Viking invasion of the 9th century did not just replace the existing population. Plus, Orkney was a part of Norway until 1468.

The genetic clusters in the map above lie in similar locations of kingdoms around the 7th century. Researchers believe many kingdoms held on to their regional identity for many centuries after the settlement of Anglo-Saxons.

It’s an interesting look back in time on the British Isles. Dr. Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics & Molecular Sciences at the Wellcome Trust, says the research can also have an impact today. “Beyond the fascinating insights into our history, this information could prove very useful from a health perspective, as building a picture of population genetics at this scale may in future help us to design better genetic studies to investigate disease.”

Check out the full study here.

Image credit: Antony McCallum/Wikipedia

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