Anglo-Saxons preferred culture to genetics


This article originally appeared on The conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Scholars have long been fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon period of British history, which spans around 600 years, from the end of Roman rule around 410 AD to the start of the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. Unfortunately, as very few contemporary documents are available, a number of questions about the beginning of the period remain unanswered. One of them is: “Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

There is generally believed that their origins can be traced to a migration of Germanic-speaking people from continental northwestern Europe that began at the beginning of the fifth century. But the number of individuals who settled in the British Isles and the nature of their relations with the pre-existing inhabitants, notably the Roman-British, is still not clear.

Conflicting evidence

UUncertainty persists because two of the main pieces of evidence contradict each other. Historical documents like that of Gildas The ruin of Brittany, Bede Ecclesiastical History of England, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggest not only that the arrivals were numerous, but also that they more or less completely replaced the Romano-British, killing some and pushing the rest towards the peripheries.

Tits image is not corroborated by the results of isotope analyzes. Isotopes are different forms of a chemical element that are distinguished by their atomic masses and physical properties. Isotope analysis can help determine where an individual grew up.

Wchicken isotopes of strontium and oxygen extracted from Anglo-Saxon skeletons were compared, they only listed a few of the individuals who grew up in continental Europe. This was interpreted as proof that the Roman-British were not replaced. Rather, they adopted a new language and a new set of values, beliefs and cultural practices from a relatively small number of newcomers.

FUnfortunately, genetic studies have not been able to clarify the debate. They returned such a wide range of estimates of the percentage of mainland European ancestry to England that they can support either hypothesis.

A new line of evidence

Rrecently we published a study in which we used a new source of evidence to investigate the issue: the three-dimensional (3D) shape of the base of the skull, which bioarchaeologists commonly refer to as the cranial base or basicranium.

Previous search has shown that when basicranium is analyzed in 3D, its form can be used to track relationships between human populations in a way similar to DNA. We felt that collecting such data from Anglo-Saxon skulls and comparing them with similar data from the two potential source regions could shed light on the makeup of the Anglo-Saxon population.

We very likely think that there has been an increase in the number of local people adopting an Anglo-Saxon identity over time.Our Anglo-Saxon sample included 89 people from five cemeteries in the English counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Kent. Three of the cemeteries date from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon period (410-660 AD) while the other two date from the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (660-889 AD). We also collected data on 101 pre-medieval skeletons from two sites in southern England and 46 individuals from various sites in Denmark that date back to the Iron Age (800 BC to 399 AD).

TTo obtain the benchmark data, we used a technique called photogrammetry. We imported 200 photos of each of the 236 skulls (minus the lower jaw) into software to create a high-resolution 3D model of each skull. We then used another software to collect the 3D coordinates of a series of landmarks on the cranial base of each individual.

Indications of mixed ancestry

OAfter collecting the data, we used a set of statistical techniques called geometric morphometry (GM) to identify the similarities and differences in shape between the four groups: Old Anglo-Saxon, Middle Anglo-Saxon, Pre-Medieval British, and Pre -medieval. Danish medieval.

reDeveloped in the 1980s, GM has long been an important tool in the study of human evolution, but it has only recently been adopted by bioarchaeologists. GM allows the study of patterns of shape variation within a well-understood statistical framework and gives easily interpreted numerical and visual results. In our GM analyzes, Anglo-Saxon skulls that shared more similarities with pre-medieval British skeletons were considered to have local ancestry, while those that were more similar to Danish skeletons were considered to have Continental European ancestry.

TThe results we obtained suggest a substantial difference between the sample of the first Anglo-Saxon period and the middle Anglo-Saxon period. We found that between 66% and 75% of early Anglo-Saxon individuals were of continental European ancestry, while between 25% and 30% were of local ancestry. In contrast, we found that 50 to 70 percent of individuals in the middle Anglo-Saxon period were of local ancestry, while 30 to 50 percent were of continental European ancestry.

Shared descent for Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was not a condition of belonging to either group.While our estimates of the percentage of Anglo-Saxons who had continental European ancestry lie comfortably within the range of estimates derived from genetic data, they contradict the picture portrayed by both historical documents and isotopic evidence. Specifically, our estimates suggest that there was a greater persistence of the Roman-British population than historical records claim and a greater number of immigrants than isotopic evidence has been taken to indicate.

WWe believe that these differences can be explained relatively easily. It seems likely that the mismatch between our results and the historical documents is related to the fact that the documents were written well afterin some cases, several hundred years latermigration, and are therefore of doubtful precision, that a certain number of scientists argued.

WWe suspect that the difference between our results and the isotopes may be the result of a misunderstanding. While the isotopes of strontium and oxygen tell us about where an individual grew up, they do not tell us about a person’s ancestry. Therefore, it is possible that some, if not all, of the individuals with local isotopic signatures are second generation immigrants.that is, their parents are from mainland Europe, but they themselves were born and raised in the British Isles.

Language and culture, not genetics

THere are several potential explanations for the change in the composition of the Anglo-Saxon population between the Old Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, but we believe that the most likely is that there has been an increase in the number of local people. adopting an Anglo-Saxon identity over time.

Tthis could have been due to the fact that being Anglo-Saxon was perceived as a higher status than being Romano-British. Alternatively, it could simply have been the consequence of people randomly copying each other. This process, known as ‘cultural drift’, has been shown to be able to account for a number of cultural models in recent history.

RWhatever the cause of the change in composition, it is clear from our results that being Anglo-Saxon was more a matter of language and culture than of genetics.

IInterestingly, this echoes the results obtained in the largest study of ancient Viking DNA published to date. In this study, a number of individuals buried as Vikings were found to be of local ancestry, suggesting that being a Viking was also a linguistic and cultural phenomenon rather than a genetic one.

TAnglo-Saxons and Vikings are often viewed in racial terms, with common biological descent seen as a key aspect of both groups. However, the results of our study and those of Viking DNA indicate that shared descent was not a condition of belonging to either group.

IInstead, it appears the Anglo-Saxons were a group of individuals of diverse ancestry who shared a common language and culture. The same goes for the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings were, in other words, surprisingly similar to the multiracial societies of contemporary Northern Europe.


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