for National Geographic News
Despite invasions by Saxons, Romans, Vikings, Normans, and others, the genetic makeup of today's white Britons is much the same as it was 12,000 ago, a new book claims.
In The Tribes of Britain, archaeologist David Miles says around 80 percent of the genetic characteristics of most white Britons have been passed down from a few thousand Ice Age hunters.
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Miles, research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, England, says recent genetic and archaeological evidence puts a new perspective on the history of the British people.
"There's been a lot of arguing over the last ten years, but it's now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of Britons' genes come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age," Miles said.
These nomadic tribespeople followed herds of reindeer and wild horses northward to Britain as the climate warmed.
"Numbers were probably quite smalljust a few thousand people," Miles added.
These earliest settlers were later cut off as rising sea levels isolated Britain from mainland Europe.
New evidence for the genetic ancestry of modern Britons comes from analysis of blood groups, oxygen traces in teeth, and DNA samples taken from skeletal remains.
Ice Age hunter-gathers also colonized the rest of northwest Europe, spreading through what are now the Netherlands, Germany, and France. But Miles said differences between populations can be detected in random genetic mutations, which occurred over time.
The most visible British genetic marker is red hair, he added. The writer Tacitus noted the Romans' surprise at how common it was when they arrived 2,000 years ago.
"It's something that foreign observers have often commented on," Miles said. "Recent studies have shown that there is more red hair in Scotland and Wales than anywhere else in the world. It's a mutation that probably occurred between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago."
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