A breakthrough genetic study led by Oxford scientists has uncovered the enduring European tribal footprints that still mark in the United Kingdom’s population.

DNA map uncovers UK's secret histories

A pioneering new DNA studies by Oxford scientists has revealed that the longstanding population of the British Isles still occupies the same tribal areas as its various ancestors a millennium and a half ago.

The first detailed genetic map of any country in the world, it reveals genetic clusters that closely match the tribal groupings and kingdoms of sixth-century Britain. The full report is published in Nature, but project originator Sir Walter Bodmer, of Oxford’s Department of Oncology, has kindly allowed Oxford Today to provide as a downloadable pdf a summary he wrote for project volunteers, richly illustrated with maps that graphically show the results. Hot on the heels of this study came another from Oxford which compares the genes of current-day North and South Americans with African and European populations, identifying the genetic fingerprints of the slave trade and colonisation that shaped migrations to the Americas hundreds of years ago.

For the British study, Sir Walter’s team first gathered DNA samples for the Wellcome Trust Peoples of the British Isles project. From these, 2,039 samples were selected, from individuals in rural areas whose four grandparents lived within 80km of each other — effectively yielding the DNA of people born around 1885, before the larger modern migrations. Comparison with samples from more than 6,000 Europeans reveals clear traces of population movements into Britain over the past ten millennia.

Blind analysis, without reference to location, identified 17 clusters of similarities. Only after this were the clusters mapped geographically, uncovering a series of remarkable hidden histories.

DNA map uncovers UK's secret histories

The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest postglacial settlers of Britain. Migration across the Channel was at significant levels between the last Ice Age and the Roman occupation.

Yet there is no single Celtic genetic group in the UK. The Celtic areas — Wales, Cornwall, Northern Ireland and Scotland — are among the most different from each other genetically. The Cornish are much more similar to the English than they are to the Welsh and the Scots. Meanwhile a different genetic group occupies Devon, and the dividing line is almost exactly along the modern county line. And a distinct group in south-west Pembrokeshire matches an area sometimes known as ‘Little England beyond Wales’ because of its English-speakers, showing it to have persisted as an enclave for almost a thousand years.

A single homogeneous group occupies most of southern, eastern and central England, with a significant DNA element from Anglo-Saxon migrations. The finding seems to lay to rest a persistent historical debate by showing that the incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes bred with the native population rather than replacing them.

The most genetically distinct population is in Orkney, where a quarter of DNA comes from Norwegian ancestors — but again this shows that the invaders did not simply replace the local population.

However, the Danish Vikings who controlled large areas of England from the 9th century — the Danelaw — have left no clear genetic signature, and nor have either the Romans before them or the Normans after them.

Sir Walter devised the study to identify meaningful levels of genetic differentiation in UK populations as a background to the study of genetic disease. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust and supervised by Sir Walter with Peter Donnelly of Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and Department of Statistics. Analysis was led by Professor Donnelly using techniques co-developed by Simon Myers of Oxford’s Department of Statistics. Contributions also came from Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology and Museum of Natural History, from University College London and from Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Relief map of Great Britain and Ireland © Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.


By Elizabeth Meehan

I wonder if you have had any collaboration with the Scotland's DNA team (in whose project I have been a volunteer).

By Mary Walton

And I wonder whether there are any plans to take samples in Eire ---- the missing piece in this fascinating jigsaw puzzle ? ( ? ? ? negligible Roman and Anglo - Saxon input ? Viking DNA around the four southern Viking ports ? Normans in Leinster --- unlikely to have influenced DNA significantly ? But Eire SO interesting in connection with the whole Celtic question........... ?

By admn3407@ox.ac.uk

In reply to Elizabeth Meehan, Sir Walter Bodmer informs me: ‘We know about the Scotland’s team but have had no direct interaction with them. We of course started long before they did, but cannot have an excessive balance of any one area, even Scotland.’

John Garth, Oxford Today web editor

By Andrew Appleby

I'm wondering where the DNA in Orkney's inhabitants of the later Neolithic might originate from?

By Phillip Wayne

Speaking (literally) of populations, has anyone looked at the Yola speakers, or at least their locals?

By B. nelson Ong

No trace of Danes-vikings in England? Where did all the Vikings go? My ancestors (family surname of "Onges") emigrated to America in 1630 from Lavenham, Suffolk. Our Family tradition was that we were Angle-Saxon, perhaps originally from Northern Germany. I came across Michael Lingwood's delightful history of Barningham, Suffolk (Our Own People: A History of a Village Community) where I read that the Onge family had lived continuously for 400 years in that village, and equally surprising that they had been part of the Viking invasion. Curious about my heritage i took the National Geographid DNA test which traces origins through the male line. The results came back with my heritage being primarily Western European and of that it was foremost Danish and second German i.e. Angle-Saxon. Thus a trace of individuals with the Viking marker may no longer be in Suffolk, but it has persisted almost 4 centuries across the Atlantic in America in my family line. One side note, having read about our family connection to Barningham, my son and I made a pilgrimage there last summer to visit. Hoping to see possible grave sites we arranged to visit the small, but beautiful, village church St. Andrew's. Imagine our surprise to be greeted by three of the Church Wardens! They gave us a copy of the Church's visitor's guide that reported that Adam Onge had left money in his will in 1439 to build the tower of the church! They graciously gave us a tour to the top of the tower. Adam Onge also donated a plot of land to the village for piblic use. The wardens took us down around the street and there was the land still set aside for use by the Church of England school there for football and cricket, etc. And for the general public's general use and enjoyment also. As we looked up at the Church's tower, I reflected on history, my Viking ancestry which seemed minor now compared to the Angle-Saxon heritage and cultural influence, and how magnificent and longlasting charitable donations can be. I had never imagined as an American that I would attend Oxford, but by a strange twist of fate I did. Long before I had found out about my distantly related ancestor Adam Onge, I had been making contributions to my college (Lincoln) one of which was to help in the resoration of the Chapel windows, and to the University. Why? Simply so that future generations could enjoy and benefit from those institutions which are so vital to society and individual development. I can think of no better way to spend my money. I wonder if this impulse to donate comes from my genetic family line one that empasizes contributing and donating instead of conquering and pillaging! Perhaps the power of the Angle-Saxon and British/English culture also was inherited.