Anglo-Saxons left language, but maybe not genes to modern Britons

Brits appear to be more closely related to the island’s indigenous people

SAN DIEGO — Britons might not be Anglo-Saxons, a genetic analysis of five ancient skeletons hints.

When archaeological digs revealed ancient graves on the grounds of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, England, researchers there took it as a sign that they should analyze the ancient people’s DNA. Two skeletons were from men who were buried about 2,000 years ago. The other three skeletons were from women who died about 1,300 years ago, not long after the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain.

The researchers were surprised to find that the older Iron Age men were genetically more similar to people living in Britain today than the Anglo-Saxon women were. Stephan Schiffels of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute reported the results October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

“It doesn’t look like these Anglo-Saxon immigrants left a big impact on the genetic makeup of modern-day Britain,” Schiffels said.

The finding raises an intriguing possibility that indigenous people in Britain may have repelled the Anglo-Saxons but adopted the invaders’ language and culture, says Eimear Kenny, a population geneticist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved in the work. More ancient samples from other times and parts of Britain should give a clearer picture of that episode of history, she said.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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