Review – Settlers: genetics, geography, and the peopling of Britain

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An exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History invites us to meet our ancestors through DNA analysis and archaeological evidence. (IMAGE: L Marchini)

Where do we come from? A new exhibition encompassing genetics and archaeology tells the long tale of migration in the British Isles. Lucia Marchini went along to take a look.


Large-scale studies of DNA are transforming our understanding of populations past and present in Britain and beyond (see CA 338, for instance, for the latest thinking on the Beaker people). In some cases, this evidence can give us all-important clues as to where groups originated. Over the centuries, the British Isles have been inhabited and conquered by newcomers from across the seas. We know of the Roman invasion, Viking occupation of much of the country, and 1066 and all that – but do historical accounts, archaeological evidence, and what is written in our genes all add up?

Neanderthals used handaxes like these, found in Wolvercote, to hunt a range of animals now extinct. (IMAGE: courtesy of OUMNH)

Among the pointed Gothic Revival arches of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (whose most famous specimen – a dodo thought to have inspired Lewis Carroll – has recently been analysed, finding lead shot pellets in its skull), the latest exhibition in the museum’s Contemporary Science and Society programme applies modern methods to a very old story. It offers a timely exploration of migration beginning at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, when people from continental Europe began to settle around Britain. Currently, we are in between censuses, which take place every ten years (with the next due in 2021), though statistics in the meantime are showing a change in migration in the 21st century. Emigration is on the rise. While the percentages of people born overseas and living in Britain have increased, so too have the numbers of those born in Britain now living abroad. It is movement into these islands, though, that is the focus of Settlers: genetics, geography, and the peopling of Britain.

We begin with some of the first inhabitants and their surroundings. Evidence from Wolvercote shows that Neanderthals were in the Oxford area around 340,000-300,000 years ago, when conditions were a little warmer than today. They lived by a channel of the Thames alongside animals like straight-tusked elephants, and crafted multipurpose flint handaxes. It is not until around 44,000 years ago that Homo sapiens may have first reached Britain. Around this time, during the last glaciation, temperatures were about 10ºC cooler than now, and mammals that could cope with the cold – mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, brown bears, and hyenas, whose bones have all been uncovered at Wookey Hole Cave, Somerset – roamed the land.

Remains from caves in Paviland, South Wales, indicate that people were using them for shelter during warmer periods 50,000-12,000 years ago. In the 1820s, the University of Oxford’s first Reader in Geology, William Buckland, uncovered a colourful burial at Goat’s Hole cave. He wrote of the discovery: ‘I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.’

The so-called ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland is one of the earliest examples of a ceremonial burial in Europe. It is hoped DNA analysis will provide clues as to the origins of this young male hunter from the Palaeolithic period. (IMAGE: courtesy of OUMNH)

The colour and the shell beads helped give the skeleton the name the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland, and the excavators believed her to date from the Roman period. In fact, this was no lady, but instead a young man, and the latest radiocarbon dates on the bones (conducted in 2008), place him firmly in the Upper Palaeolithic. The ‘Red Lady’ died c.33,000-34,000 years ago, and was carefully prepared for one of the earliest known ceremonial burials in Europe. Stone tools and charred animal bones suggest this was a hunter, but research is under way to extract DNA to establish where he might have come from.


We have 99.9% of our DNA sequence in common with every other unrelated human (98% with chimpanzees, 85% with mice, and 41% with starfish), but it is in the differences that we can find evidence about our geographic origins. In 2015, the results of the University of Oxford’s People of the British Isles study were published. The study compared variations in the genomes of around 2,000 volunteers in rural locations around the country whose grandparents had all been born in the same area. Seventeen different clusters emerged, and when a symbol marking an individual’s genetic cluster is plotted on the map according to where they live, patterns can be seen. People in the same genetic cluster are likely to live in the same region, and the locations of the clusters reflect Anglo-Saxon colonisation in southern, central, and eastern England, with a component of DNA from north-west Germany; Viking occupation in Orkney, where Norwegian DNA is detected; and the genetic diversity among small groups established in the west and the north before the Roman invasion.

This map, produced by the People of the British Isles study (and originally published in Nature 519), highlights the links between genetic ancestry and geographical origins.

Archaeological evidence bears witness to these genetic journeys, and can fill in gaps where the genetic legacy is lacking. Tangible traces of the cultural changes brought about by newcomers can be seen around Britain. Neolithic settlers arrived around 6,000 years ago, with pottery technology, crops like emmer wheat, and domestic cattle. A pattern of DNA dating from the Neolithic links modern people in northern France and in England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, but not Wales. Under the Romans, Iron Age staters give way to coins issued by emperors, and Samian ware proliferates. Relatively few Romans settled, though, and there is little evidence of a genetic legacy. The Anglo- Saxons who seem to have had an impact on the modern DNA of large parts of England introduced distinctive styles of jewellery, including saucer brooches, and other artefacts, as well as cultivated bread wheat; while later, hacksilver and drinking horn finials are remainders of Viking activity.

There is little genetic evidence to suggest that, like the Romans before them, more than a small number of elite Normans settled in Britain, but archaeological and written records reveal the wider impact of 1066. In this exhibition, as in the wider research behind it, different disciplines come together to paint a fuller picture of the past.


Settlers: genetics, geography, and the peopling of Britain runs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History until 16 September. Admission is free. Visit for more information.

This review appeared in CA 340.

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