In the eighth century C.E., an English monk named Bede wrote the history of the island, saying Rome’s decline in about 400 C.E. opened the way to an invasion from the east. Angle, Saxon, and Jute tribes from what is today northwestern Germany and southern Denmark “came over into the island, and they began to increase so much, that they became terrible to the natives.”
But in the later 20th century, many archaeologists suspected Bede, writing centuries later, had exaggerated the invasion’s scale. Instead, they envisioned a small migration of a warrior elite, who imposed their imported culture on the existing population. Now, a sweeping genomic study, published this week in Nature, suggests Bede may have been at least partly right. New DNA samples from 494 people who died in England between 400 and 900 C.E. show they derived more than three-quarters of their ancestry from Northern Europe.
The results address a long-standing debate about whether past cultural change signals new people moving in or a largely unchanged population adopting new technologies or beliefs. With the Anglo-Saxons, the data point strongly to migration, says University of Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills, who was not part of the research. The new data suggest “significant movement into the British Isles … taking us back to a fairly traditional picture of what’s going on.”