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DNA reveals large scale migrations into Bronze Age Britain

A new DNA study of Bronze Age Britain, “Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age,” published in Nature traces the movement of people into southern Britain during the period.

In the largest such analysis published to date, scientists examined the DNA of nearly 800 ancient individuals.

Led by the University of York, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Vienna, the study shows that people moving into southern Britain around 1300‒800 BC were responsible for around half the genetic ancestry of subsequent populations.

The combined DNA and archaeological evidence suggest that, rather than a violent invasion or a single migratory event, the genetic structure of the population changed through sustained contacts between mainland Britain and Europe over several centuries, such as the movement of traders, intermarriage, and small scale movements of family groups.

DNA study of Bronze Age Britain

The study finds evidence that the new migrants became thoroughly mixed into the Southern British population in the period 1000‒875 BC.

The researchers say the origin of these migrants cannot yet be established with certainty, but they are most likely to have come from communities in and around present-day France.

DNA study of Bronze Age Britain

The Middle to Late Bronze Age was a time when settled farming communities expanded across the landscapes of southern Britain, and extensive trade routes developed to allow the movement of metal ores for the production of bronze.

These new networks linked wide-ranging regions across Europe, as seen from the spread of bronze objects and raw materials.

“We have long suspected, based on patterns of trade and shared ideologies, that the Middle to Late Bronze Age was a time of intense contacts between communities in Britain and Europe,” said the study’s lead archaeologist Professor Ian Armit, from the University of York. “While we may once have thought that long-distance mobility was restricted to a few individuals, such as traders or small bands of warriors, this new DNA evidence shows that considerable numbers of people were moving, across the whole spectrum of society.”

Some of the earliest genetic outliers have been found in Kent, suggesting that the southeast may have been a focus for movement into Britain. This resonates with previously published isotope evidence from archaeological sites like Cliffs End Farm, where some individuals were shown to have spent their childhoods on the Continent.

Evidence of Celtic language arriving in Britain

The new DNA evidence may also shed light on the long-standing question of when early Celtic languages arrived in Britain.

Since population movement often drives linguistic change, the new DNA evidence significantly strengthens the case for the appearance of Celtic languages in Britain in the Bronze Age. Conversely, the study shows little evidence for large-scale movements of people into Britain during the subsequent Iron Age, which has previously been thought of as the period during which Celtic languages may have spread.

“These findings do not settle the question of the origin of Celtic languages into Britain. However, any reasonable scholar needs to adjust their best guesses about what occurred based on these findings,” said Professor David Reich, from Harvard Medical School. “Our results militate against an Iron Age spread of Celtic languages into Britain — the popular “Celtic from the East’ hypothesis — and increase the likelihood of a Late Bronze Age arrival from France, a rarely discussed scenario called ‘Celtic from the Centre.’”

Increase in the frequency of the allele for lactase

A further unexpected finding of the study is a large increase in the frequency of the allele for lactase persistence (a genetic adaptation that allowed people to digest dairy products) in Bronze Age populations in Britain relative to the Continent.

“This study increases the amount of ancient DNA data we have from the Late Bronze and Iron Age in Britain by twelvefold, and Western and Central Europe by 3.5-fold,” said co-senior author of the study Professor Ron Pinhasi, a physical anthropologist and ancient DNA specialist from the University of Vienna.

With this massive amount of data, scientists now have the ability to carry out studies of adaptation with enough resolution in both time and space to allow us to discern that natural selection occurred in different ways in different parts of Europe.

“Our results show that dairy products must have been used in qualitatively different ways from an economic or cultural perspective in Britain than they were on the European continent in the Iron Age, as this was a time when lactase persistence was rising rapidly in frequency in Britain but not on the Continent,” said Pinhasi.

Although the new DNA evidence sheds most light on Britain, the data also indicate population movements between different parts of continental Europe, confirming what archaeologists have long suspected – that the Late Bronze Age was a period of intense and sustained contacts between many diverse communities.

The study’s authors are Nick Patterson, Michael Isakov, Thomas Booth, Lindsey Büster, Claire-Elise Fischer, Iñigo Olalde, Harald Ringbauer, Ali Akbari, Olivia Cheronet, Madeleine Bleasdale, Nicole Adamski, Eveline Altena, Rebecca Bernardos, Selina Brace, Nasreen Broomandkhoshbacht, Kimberly Callan, Francesca Candilio, Brendan Culleton, Elizabeth Curtis, Lea Demetz, Kellie Sara Duffett Carlson, Daniel M. Fernandes, M. George B. Foody, Suzanne Freilich, Helen Goodchild, Aisling Kearns, Ann Marie Lawson, Iosif Lazaridis, Matthew Mah, Swapan Mallick, Kirsten Mandl, Adam Micco, Megan Michel, Guillermo Bravo Morante, Jonas Oppenheimer, Kadir Toykan Özdoğan, Lijun Qiu, Constanze Schattke, Kristin Stewardson, J. Noah Workman, Fatma Zalzala, Zhao Zhang, Bibiana Agustí, Tim Allen, Katalin Almássy, Luc Amkreutz, Abigail Ash, Christèle Baillif-Ducros, Alistair Barclay, László Bartosiewicz, Katherine Baxter, Zsolt Bernert, Jan Blažek, Mario Bodružić, Philippe Boissinot, Clive Bonsall, Pippa Bradley, Marcus Brittain, Alison Brookes, Fraser Brown, Lisa Brown, Richard Brunning, Chelsea Budd, Josip Burmaz, Sylvain Canet, Silvia Carnicero-Cáceres, Morana Čaušević-Bully, Andrew Chamberlain, Sébastien Chauvin, Sharon Clough, Natalija Čondić, Alfredo Coppa, Oliver Craig, Matija Črešnar, Vicki Cummings, Szabolcs Czifra, Alžběta Danielisová, Robin Daniels, Alex Davies, Philip de Jersey, Jody Deacon, Csilla Deminger, Peter W. Ditchfield, Marko Dizdar, Miroslav Dobeš, Miluše Dobisíková, László Domboróczki, Gail Drinkall, Ana Đukić, Ceiridwen J. Edwards, Michal Ernée, Christopher Evans, Jane Evans, Manuel Fernández-Götz, Slavica Filipović, Andrew Fitzpatrick, Harry Fokkens, Chris Fowler, Allison Fox, Zsolt Gallina, Michelle Gamble, Manuel R. González Morales, Borja González-Rabanal, Adrian Green, Katalin Gyenesei, Diederick Habermehl, Tamás Hajdu, Derek Hamilton, James Harris, Chris Hayden, Joep Hendriks, Bénédicte Hernu, Gill Hey, Milan Horňák, Gábor Ilon, Eszter Istvánovits, Andy M. Jones, Martina Blečić Kavur, Kevin Kazek, Robert A. Kenyon, Amal Khreisheh, Viktória Kiss, Jos Kleijne, Mark Knight, Lisette M. Kootker, Péter F. Kovács, Anita Kozubová, Gabriella Kulcsár, Valéria Kulcsár, Christophe Le Pennec, Michael Legge, Matt Leivers, Louise Loe, Olalla López-Costas, Tom Lord, Dženi Los, James Lyall, Ana B. Marín-Arroyo, Philip Mason, Damir Matošević, Andy Maxted, Lauren McIntyre, Jacqueline McKinley, Kathleen McSweeney, Bernard Meijlink, Balázs G. Mende, Marko Menđušić, Milan Metlička, Sophie Meyer, Kristina Mihovilić, Lidija Milasinovic, Steve Minnitt, Joanna Moore, Geoff Morley, Graham Mullan, Margaréta Musilová, Benjamin Neil, Rebecca Nicholls, Mario Novak, Maria Pala, Martin Papworth, Cécile Paresys, Ricky Patten, Domagoj Perkić, Krisztina Pesti, Alba Petit, Katarína Petriščáková, Coline Pichon, Catriona Pickard, Zoltán Pilling, T. Douglas Price, Siniša Radović, Rebecca Redfern, Branislav Resutík, Daniel T. Rhodes, Martin B. Richards, Amy Roberts, Jean Roefstra, Pavel Sankot, Alena Šefčáková, Alison Sheridan, Sabine Skae, Miroslava Šmolíková, Krisztina Somogyi, Ágnes Somogyvári, Mark Stephens, Géza Szabó, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, Tamás Szeniczey, Jonathan Tabor, Károly Tankó, Clenis Tavarez Maria, Rachel Terry, Biba Teržan, Maria Teschler-Nicola, Jesús F. Torres-Martínez, Julien Trapp, Ross Turle, Ferenc Ujvári, Menno van der Heiden, Petr Veleminsky, Barbara Veselka, Zdeněk Vytlačil, Clive Waddington, Paula Ware, Paul Wilkinson, Linda Wilson, Rob Wiseman, Eilidh Young, Joško Zaninović, Andrej Žitňan, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Peter de Knijff, Ian Barnes, Peter Halkon, Mark G. Thomas, Douglas J. Kennett, Barry Cunliffe, Malcolm Lillie, Nadin Rohland, Ron Pinhasi, Ian Armit, and David Reich.

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