The idea that there is a common Anglo-Saxon ancestry based on biology is gaining currency among some right-wing and religious groups in the UK and US.
In the UK, the new leader of the UK Independence Party, Henry Bolton, suggested in a radio interview in October that “in certain communities the indigenous Anglo-Saxon population is nowhere to be seen.”
In August, a religious group called the Odinist Fellowship wrote to the Church of England demanding two churches as reparations for a “spiritual genocide” which it claims began in the seventh century AD.
The Odinists use old Icelandic texts to reconstruct the “indigenous” religion of the Anglo-Saxons which they claim was oppressed with the arrival of Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons are commonly believed to have migrated into Briton in the fifth and sixth century AD. Iceland by contrast was inhabited in the ninth century by Viking settlers. In the US, this mixed up medievalism is associated with the white supremacist alt-right who use Anglo-Saxon and Viking motifs.
But archaeological research, which examines ancient DNA and artefacts to explore who these “indigenous” Anglo-Saxons were, shows that the people of fifth and sixth century England had a mixed heritage and did not base their identity on a biological legacy. The very idea of the Anglo-Saxon ancestor is a more recent invention linked closely with the English establishment.
Listen: The Anthill podcast episode on myths includes a segment on myths about race
What DNA evidence shows
For decades, archaeologists and geneticists have sought to identify Anglo-Saxons in England. An early attempt in 2002 relied on modern DNA with a study of the male Y chromosome suggesting there had been a 95% population replacement of Britons by the Anglo-Saxons, comprised of different people from Northern Europe. But another study, based on mitochondrial DNA which is inherited from the mother, found no evidence of significant post-Roman migration into England. A third paper suggested that the genetic contribution of the Anglo-Saxons in south-eastern England was under 50%.
The discrepancies between the findings are because these three papers used modern DNA and worked backwards. Work my colleagues and I have undertaken looked at the question from the other direction – by working with ancient DNA.
The results from our recent study were published in Nature Communications and included evidence from an Anglo-Saxon site I excavated in Oakington, Cambridgeshire. In total ten skeletons were investigated. These included seven early medieval graves dating to between the fifth and eighth century – four from Oakington and three from Hinxton – and three earlier Iron Age graves from Cambridgeshire, dating to between the second century BC and the first century AD, to provide the genome of the antecedent inhabitants of Briton.
We used a novel method called “rarecoal” to look at ancestry based on the sharing of rare alleles, which are the building blocks of genes. Our research concluded that migrants during what’s now thought of as the Anglo-Saxon period were most closely related to the modern Dutch and Danish – and that the modern East English population derived 38% of its ancestry from these incomers. The rest of Britain, including today’s Scottish and Welsh, share 30% of their DNA with these migrants.
The analysis of DNA of four individuals from the Oakington Anglo-Saxon cemetery identified that one of them was a match with the Iron Age genome, two were closest to modern Dutch genomes, and one was a hybrid of the two. Each of these burials was culturally Anglo-Saxon because they were buried in the same way, in the same cemetery. In fact, the richest assemblage of Anglo-Saxon artefacts came from the individual with the match for Iron Age genetic ancestry, and so was not a migrant at all.