Modern Britons shaped by wave of migration 3,000 years ago

Previously unknown mass movement of people has been identified in DNA study of ancient Britons

Volunteers recreate a Bronze Age roundhouse in Hampshire, southern England. PA

Modern Britain has been shaped by a previously-unknown large-scale wave of migrants who crossed the Dover Straits to England’s southern coast by boat from Europe some 3,000 years ago, a new study has revealed.

DNA analysis of the ancient remains of nearly 800 people has shown that Britons and continental Europeans were in constant contact over 500 years, which helps to explain the genetic make-up of modern Britain, according to a study published today in Nature.

Traders and families crossed the English Channel to take advantage of major changes in British society from about 1,300 BC as farming communities expanded across the country and routes developed to allow the trade in bronze. The new networks allowed for bronze objects and raw materials to be traded throughout Europe, the study found.

The new arrivals settled, inter-married and became thoroughly mixed in the southern British population in the period 1000 to 875 BC, according to researchers from the universities of York and Vienna and Harvard Medical School.

They were most likely to have come from communities in modern-day France who may have brought Celtic languages to the UK – earlier than previously thought. The modern incarnations of those languages are spoken in Wales and Scotland.

The study highlights how the current political preoccupation with migrants arriving across the narrow waterway that separates northern Europe and the southeast tip of England is just the latest stage of a phenomenon seen for thousands of years.

Previous work had indicated there were two other major periods of migration in the last 10,000 years.

The first Neolithic farmers, who lived around 3950–2450 BC, are thought to have descended from early European farmers and hunter-gatherers. A second wave came around 2450 BC linked to the arrival of Europeans whose ancestry derived from the Central Asian Steppes.

Professor Ian Armit, of the University of York, said: “We have long suspected, based on patterns of trade and shared ideologies, that the Middle to Late Bronze Age was a time of intense contacts between communities in Britain and Europe.

“While we may once have thought that long-distance mobility was restricted to a few individuals, such as traders or small bands of warriors, this new DNA evidence shows that considerable numbers of people were moving, across the whole spectrum of society.”

Updated: December 22nd 2021, 4:00 PM