A major research project has confirmed and refined previous genetic research into the origins of the English people. The study has 80 authors from 56 institutions located in Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Iceland, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S.A., and Australia. It is published in the prestigious British journal Nature.

The research drew on the remarkable recovery of ancient DNA from grave sites, data that have been accumulating for many years. DNA was obtained from 460 individuals who lived in the early Middle Ages, ie. 450-850 AD. It also drew on archaeological evidence.

The findings confirmed that there was large scale migration to England across the North Sea from Denmark and Germany. DNA found in Eastern England showed 76 percent similarity with the Continental North Sea zone, though with considerable regional variation. In subsequent centuries that percentage declined somewhat due to population trends among native British-Isles peoples.

Scottish, Welsh and Irish genomes appear to derive mainly from the British Bronze or Iron Age, with little or no contribution from the Continent. But present day England is more complex, with 25%-47% resembling English early Middle Ages people with roots among continental northern Europeans, 11%-57% resembling people in Britain in the late Iron Age, and 14%-43% resembling people from France in the Iron Age. There were low levels of ancient continental ancestry in southwestern and northwestern England and along the Welsh border. Substantial French ancestry was found only in England, peaking in East Anglia.

The new research adds detail to the knowledge that there was a migration of Germanic peoples, who mixed with the existing inhabitants to form the English ethnicity. Those who deny that there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion are mistaken.

However, it has been known for some time that the notion of complete replacement of the Celtic-Roman population was a myth. Geneticist Bryan Sykes wrote in his 2006 book, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The genetic roots of Britain and Ireland, that the English people are a fusion of Celtic and Germanic peoples. His work was not conclusive because he did not study the whole genome but only short sequences of it, namely the mitochondria and Y-chromosomes.

Sykes noted that people naturally care about their ancestry. That also applies to the British:

“[T]o the people concerned, and to everyone else in the Isles, it is our own genetic ancestry that is the most important. It is the thread that goes back to our own deep roots that means the most. The proportions of one clan or another are vital and the detailed genetic comparisons are essential for arriving at any sort of general conclusion, but it is our own ancestry that understandably, and quite rightly, holds the most interest.” (p. 287)

The data provide further insights into ancestry and history. However, the differences found are quite small compared to the differences that exist between races. For example, modern Irish and English have different genetic histories. But this difference is not significant when compared to the difference between European genes as a whole and other races. For example, by one measure the indigenous Irish and English are 55 times closer genetically than Europeans and Africans, and 31 times more similar than Europeans and Northeast Asians.[1]

The smallness of the genetic differences between the native peoples of the British Isles indicates their common ancestry in the distant past. They can be viewed, at the genetic level, as one population. That is how they are often viewed by non-Europeans. Most of the differences between British-Isle peoples is cultural, accumulated over the centuries.

It is worth noting that these studies of ancestral differences would be meaningless if nationality or ethnicity were defined by citizenship. Indeed, immigrants and their descendants from recent decades are excluded from such studies.

The prehistorian known as “Jive Talk” has commented on the new research.

Different perspectives on Anglo-Saxon genetics are discussed by Professor David E. Thornton in a recent lecture.

[1] Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., P. Menozzi and A. Piazza (1994). The history and geography of human genes. Abridged edition. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press. . Compare genetic distance data in Tables 2.3.2 (p. 80) and 5.5.1 (p. 270).