Anglo-Saxon Migration - the latest genetic evidence 2024

In 2015, the Peopling of the British Isles (POBI) research group, published this paper:

The Fine-scale genetic structure of the British Population  Leslie, Winney etal POBI 2015

It proposed that the Early Medieval migration events commonly known as Anglo-Saxon (a better term to include the 9th Century surge could be Anglo-Danish), has been exaggerated. They concluded that the modern English had only 10% to 40% descent from these Continental immigrants, with the remainder majority reflecting earlier Iron Age / Romano British ancestry.

An independent 2016 investigation by Schiffels, Haak etal looked at ancientDNA from cemeteries in Cambridgeshire. The results supported POBI's conclusion, proposing:

'East English population derives 38% of its ancestry from Anglo-Saxon migrations'

This has quickly shifted into the domain of public lore. That the Anglo-Saxons did not displace the local Britons, that they did merge, with those of British ancestry assuming Anglo-Saxon culture, and that the modern ethnic English of local descent, have only a minority of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

There were criticisms of both studies. POBI had been based on the DNA of modern populations. Whilst the Haak, Schiffel etal study contained too few ancientDNA samples.

A new study published in 2022, by a similar research team:

This study has been based on far more samples of ancientDNA. A total of 460 NW Europeans including 278 individuals from England. In conclusion, they continue to emphasise admixture, a merging, and the adoption by some people of local descent, of Continental Northern European (Anglo-Saxon) grave goods. They managed to map local family histories of merging population.

They increased the projected impact of Continental Northern European DNA on the British genome.

A recap:
  • POBI 2015 suggested 10% - 40% Anglo-Danish
  • The small scale Schiffels, Haak etal report of 2016 suggested 38% 'Continental Northern European'  (Anglo-Danish) in the Cambridgeshire region.

The 2022 study based on hundreds of ancient remains increased the percentage of new arrivals. They conclude that it is higher further east, closer to the North Sea, but declines as an average in Western England.  At its peak in Eastern England, they projected that Anglo-Danish accounted for 76% of the genome:

'the individuals who we analysed from eastern England derived up to 76% of their ancestry from the continental North Sea zone, albeit with substantial regional variation and heterogeneity within sites.'

This is a higher estimate than that proposed by the previous two studies.

The discussion was not restricted to the percentage of this Continental Northern European DNA. They also examined the origins of these early medieval immigrants. They concluded that they had arrived from a belt across Northern Europe that focused on Frisia, North Germany, and Denmark. They also suggest a smaller, secondary population from further south that might be Frankish. Finally, they detected that this immigration event extended for longer than previously thought, extending into the 8th Century CE, and blending into the Danish settlement.

One fascinating find, I will discuss in another post, concerns the remains excavated in Kent of the UpDown Girl. Just as a taster:

A small caveat. None of these genetic studies can distinguish between Anglo-Saxon DNA and the later, Medieval Danish DNA. Hence, it might be better to consider this as Anglo-Danish. But in some ways, the 9th Century was a fresh surge of the same immigration event.

The Forgotten Origin of the British - Late Bronze Age

Image of an LBA socketed axehead from Portable Antiquities Scheme

The Forgotten Contribution to the South British Genome.

 A research team looking at ancientDNA led by David Reich had already detected a 97% population replacement across Britain at the close of the Neolithic period, circa 2,300 BCE. They proposed that the Earlier, European Neolithic Farmers of Britain, were replaced by a new people, associated with the Bell Beaker artefact culture. These new people had previously been admixed between European Neolithic Farmers living on the Continent, and recently migrants from the Pontic & Caspian Steppes of Eurasia. 

Northern Europe has more of this migrant Yamnaya / Steppe ancestry which arrived during the 3rd Millennium BCE, while Southern Europe (peaking in Sardinia, then Iberia) has more residual ancestry from the earlier, European Neolithic Farmers. Yet the South British (English) have rather more Neolithic ancestry than other Northern neighbours. This raised questions concerning where had this DNA come from.

Reich's team speculated on this result, and investigated the remains of ancient DNA further. This was later reported on:

Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age

In the above paper, the research team suggest a secondary migration event, that followed the Bell Beaker population replacement. They date it to the end of the Middle Bronze Age / start of the Late Bronze Age circa 900 BCE, although proposed that it had slowly been arriving for some time, before a surge of new arrivals to Britain. They do not pinpoint where these immigrants come from, but by their heavier Neolithic ancestry, it is proposed that they had moved up from further south, most probably from France. How many? The study proposes a 50% DNA replacement in Southern Britain, across England & Wales. I think that is probably comparable to the most recent, highest estimates for the much later Anglo-Danish immigration event.

The tabloids of course, reacted:

From this it has further been proposed, that it may have been this forgotten immigration which brought the p-celtic and / or q-celtic languages to Britain. If you subscribe to identifying Iron Age Britons as Insular Celts then this could represent the arrival in Britain. 

Personally I feel that what we 21st Century CE people believe to be Insular Celtic, reflects a much longer, older exchange of people and ideas across Britain, Ireland, and the Western Seaboard of Europe during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The Romans did much later, claim more recent Belgae migrations into Britain, some tribes even shared names with tribes in France and Belgium. These could represent a continuation of migration, possibly of elites. Prehistoric Britain was very much in contact with the nearby Continent, and a part of Europe.


Those socketed axe heads, and other artefacts of the Late Bronze Age may now be identified as representing a new culture and people, admixing into Southern Britain.

Through studies of ancient genomes, we are witnessing the reveal of a number of prehistoric migration events into Britain. These above, contribute to the modern British genome. Earlier migrations than these are also known. The Bell Beaker folk may have replaced to builders of Avebury, but those Neolithic Farmers had previously replaced the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers already here. Ancient DNA of Neolithic Britons is markedly different to that of any Mesolithic remains, and carries genetic markers from South West Asia.

Neither were the Mesolithic Britons aboriginal. The DNA of Cheddar Man (and others of his time from around Western Europe), originates from Arabia / Asia, and is different to any earlier so far sequenced. They were possibly not of the Magdalenian Culture. The story of the Europeans has often been a series of migrations from regions of Asia, both north and south of the Caucasus.

From this we should judge the Anglo-Danish (Anglo-Saxon plus later Danish arrivals) immigration, as being no more than one of several such events, with earlier examples until recently, lost in prehistory.

Original Nature publication:


Earlier Posts:

The Beaker phenomenon and genetic transformation of Northwest Norfolk. A layman's take 2017

Celebrating my Steppe and Beaker ancestors

Own Photo.