Holocene migrations of people into Britain

People assigned to a variety of human species: Homo sapiens H. neanderthalensis (Swanscombe, 400 ka and several later times ) H heidelbergensis (Boxgrove, ca 500 ka, )H. antecessor (Happisburgh, ca 950 ka) – have left signs of their presence in Britain. Human occupancy has largely depended on climate. Around 9 times since the first known human presence here, much of Britain was repeatedly buried by glacial ice to become a frigid desert for tens of thousands of years. Between 180 and 60 ka only a couple of flint artefacts found in road excavations in Kent hint at Neanderthal visitors. For most of the Late Pleistocene the archipelago seems to have been devoid of humans. Arguably, Europe’s first known anatomically modern humans occupied several caves in Devon, Derbyshire and South Wales as early as around 43 ka, while climate was cooling, only to abandon Britain during the Last Glacial Maximum (24 to 18 ka ago). As climate warmed again thereafter, sporadic occupation by Late Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers occurred up to the sudden onset of the frigid Younger Dryas (12.9 ka). Once warming returned quickly 11,700 years ago, sea level was low enough for game and hunter gatherers to migrate to Britain; this time for permanent occupancy. Bones of the earliest known of these Mesolithic people have yielded DNA and a surprise: they were dark skinned and so far as we can tell remained so until the beginning of Neolithic farming in Britain around 6100 years ago. The DNA of most living Britons with pale skins retains up to 10% of inheritance from these original hunter gatherers.  Much the same is known from elsewhere in NW Europe. In the early Holocene it was possible to walk across what is now the southern North Sea thanks to Doggerland. Following a tsunami at around 8.2 ka this rich area of wetland vanished, so that all later migration demanded sea journeys.  

Mesolithic people remained in occupation of the British Isles for another two millennia. A wealth of evidence, summarised nicely in Ray, K. & Thomas, J. 2018, Neolithic Britain, Oxford University Press, suggests that there was a lengthy period of overlap between Mesolithic and Neolithic occupation around 4100 BCE. The main difference between the two groups was that Neolithic communities subsisted on domesticated grains and animals, while those of the Mesolithic consumed wild resources. Cultural clues in archaeological finds, however, suggest a lot in common, such as the erection of various kinds of monuments. Posts of tree trunks, sometimes arranged in lines, were raised in the Mesolithic and lines of probably ritual pits were dug. Both ‘traditions’ continued into the Neolithic and evolved to stone monuments, to which were added burials of different kinds. It is worth noting that Stonehenge was developed on a site that held much earlier, large totem-pole like posts, with a nearby spring that had hosted regular gatherings of Mesolithic people. Signs of Mesolithic occupation in Britain extend just as widely as do those of Neolithic practices. A study of DNA from 7 Mesolithic skeletons and 67 of early Neolithic age (Brace, S. and 20 others 2019. Population Replacement in Early Neolithic Britain. Nature Ecology & Evolution, v. 3, p. 765-771; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0871-9) revealed that early Neolithic people did not wipe out the genetic make-up (either by complete displacement or annihilation) of their predecessors. About 20 to 30% of Neolithic DNA was inherited from them; as would be expected from assimilation of a probably much smaller number of hunter-gatherers into a larger population  of  immigrants who brought farming and herding from Asian Turkey (Anatolia). Such ‘hybrid’ genetics was widespread in Europe and they are referred to as the Early European Farmers (EEF). As Ray and Thomas suggest, aspects of Mesolithic culture may have been adopted by the newcomers across the British Isles from Orkney to Wiltshire.

Around 2400 BCE the earliest Neolithic ceremonial site at Brodgar on Orkney was destroyed to the accompaniment of an enormous feast that consumed several hundred cattle. At about the same time several men, whose tooth geochemistry indicated an origin in the European Alps, were buried on Salisbury Plain together with the earliest metal artefacts known from Britain (copper knives), the accoutrements of archery and distinctive, bell-shaped pottery beakers. Stonehenge was ‘remodelled’ shortly afterwards, with the addition of its giant trilithons, four of which were later adorned with carvings of metal axes and daggers. The Early Bronze (or Chalcolithic) Age had arrived! A 2018 study of ancient DNA from Bronze Age burials in Europe suggested a far more drastic swamping of Neolithic genetic heritage by the ‘Beaker people’ (Olalde, I. and a great many others 2018. The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature, v. 555, p. 190-196; DOI: 10.1038/nature25738). The skeletons from Britain analysed by Olalde et al. apparently suggested that, within a few hundred years, up to 90% of the Neolithic gene pool had been removed from the British population. Who were these people who used metals and the distinctive Bell Beakers, where did they come from and what did they do?

The closest match to the British and western European Bronze Age DNA was that associated with the Yamnaya people from the steppes of SE Ukraine and Southern Russia who had developed a culture centred on herding. They had also adopted the wheel from people of the Mesopotamian plains and had domesticated the horse for riding and pulling carts: ideal for their semi-nomadic lifestyle and for moving en masse. After 3000 BCE they spread into Europe, as widely recorded by their distinctive beakers and the presence of their DNA in the genomes of later Europeans. Their burials – in ‘kurgans’ – resembled the round barrows that appeared on Salisbury Plain and elsewhere during the Bronze Age. The DNA replacement data from 2018 were limited and held few clues to how it happened. One possibility for such a dramatic change could be a violent takeover that drove down the population of British Neolithic people. To address the broader influence of migration in more detail and over a loner time span, a team led by the Universities of York and Vienna, and Harvard Medical School (Patterson, N. and a great many others 2021. Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age. Nature, early online release; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04287-4) used ancient DNA from 793 individuals excavated in Britain (416 individuals) and continental Europe (377) from Bronze- to Iron Age sites (2300 to ~100 BCE).

The proportion of Early European Farmers DNA in British individuals from the Bronze Age (2400 BCE) to the Iron Age (750 BCE to 43 CE). Note the ‘fuzzy’ nature of the data, and that the decline in EEF in British individuals was not as great as earlier analyses had shown. Remarkably, the ‘Amesbury Archer’, who brought the first metals to Britain, had a higher proportion of EEF ancestry than the Early Bronze-Age average. (Credit: Patterson et al. Fig. 3)

The new data from Britain suggest that the migrants, who crossed the Channel later in the Bronze Age, were of mixed ethnicity, but most carried EEF genes. The influence of earlier migrants from the Yamnaya heartlands is present, but so too are relics of Mesolithic ancestry. Interestingly, the British data show a much larger increase in the genes associated with lactase persistence, which marks the ability of adults to digest milk, than was apparent in the wider European population (50% compared with about 7% in Eastern Europeans of the time). Whatever the impact of the first influx of metal-using people – it may have been culturally decisive in Britain – by the end of the Bronze Age the EEF ‘signature’ had increased in peoples’ genomes. Rather than some kind of invasion, the influx was more likely to have been a sustained movement of people to Britain over several hundred years By the Iron Age, almost half the ancestry of Britain, particularly in England and Wales, was once again predominantly of EEF origin (around 40% of the mixture), but culture had become completely different. There are even suggestions that the influx brought with it the beginnings of Celtic languages. Yet the data leave a great deal of further analysis to be undertaken.

See also: Drury, S.A. 2019. Genetics and the peopling of Britain: We are all hybrids, People and Nature; Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals Large Scale Migrations Into Bronze Age Britain, SciTechDaily, 28 December 2021.

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