Movers and settlers

Our new exhibition Settlers, which opens today, shows that the history of the people of Britain is one of movement, migration and settlement. Here, exhibition writer Georgina Ferry finds that Britain has been receiving new arrivals since the last Ice Age.  

In Britain following the Brexit vote, the word ‘migration’ has taken on an emotional and political charge. A new exhibition opening today takes a long-view of the movement of people, looking in particular at how migration has formed the British population.

Settlers: genetics, geography and the peopling of Britain tells the story of the occupation of Britain since the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,600 years ago. From this perspective, today’s pattern of movement into and out of the country is only the latest in a long history of alternating change and stability that has made the people of Britain who they are today.

Hand axes from Wolvercote, Oxford
About 340,000 – 300,000 years ago, when conditions were slightly warmer than at present, Neanderthal hunters lived alongside a channel of the Thames near Oxford where the village of Wolvercote now stands. They made flint hand axes – all-purpose butchering, digging and chopping tools. They hunted animals now extinct in Britain.

Tracing these movements has been a fascinating detective story, with clues coming from many different types of evidence. The starting point for Settlers is a remarkable study carried out by Oxford scientists, who used DNA samples from contemporary British volunteers to trace the origins of the people who settled Britain between the end of the Ice Age and the Norman Conquest of 1066. One striking finding is that the bonds that unite Celtic communities in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland are largely cultural – genetically these groups are quite distinct.

Drinking horn finial of copper alloy and glass, 9th century – Northern Ireland. The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The genetic evidence adds a new dimension to the archaeological story, based on artefacts left behind by our ancestors, or other historical signposts such as place names. For example, although occupying Roman armies left us the names of their forts and cities, they don’t seem to have left much of their DNA. They came, saw and conquered, but didn’t stay in large enough numbers to make a genetic impact on the native British population. In contrast the Anglo-Saxons, who arrived after the Romans withdrew, left a strong genetic signature everywhere except Wales and the Scottish Highlands.

It took 2,000 volunteers and software that can distinguish tiny differences to arrive at the various regional clusters that came out of the study. When you visit the exhibition, you can play a fascinating interactive lottery game to see just how unlikely it is that genes from any specific ancestor of more than a few generations will still be in your DNA.

This map, created by the People of the British Isles study, is the result of comparing patterns in the DNA of a carefully selected sample of around 2,000 modern British people. It provides new evidence about links between genetic ancestry and geographical origins.

The story of movement and settlement doesn’t stop in 1066. Researchers in Oxford’s School of Geography have plotted census data since 1841 against global events, from the persecution of Russian Jews to the enlargement of the European Union, to illustrate the ebb and flow of people from and to Britain that has produced the current population mix. Another interactive lets you compare your own family’s journey with those of all the other visitors.

We will have to wait until the census of 2021 to know what a difference Brexit will make, but we can be sure that people will be arriving and leaving for a lot longer than that.

Back to your roots


If you have ever tried to trace your family tree and come to a dead end, the chances are that your missing ancestors were still living in the same place over a thousand years ago. A paper just published in Nature, and co-researched by the Museum’s environmental archaeologist Professor Mark Robinson, looked at the genotypes of more than 2,000 people and found some surprising results.

The People of the British Isles (POBI) survey selected people with grandparents who were born in shared rural locations, so as to remove the effects of recent population movements, and created the first fine-scale genetic map of any country in the world. It showed that the UK’s population could be divided into 17 genetically distinct groups, most with very little interbreeding for the last thousand years or more.

A genetic map of Britain created by the People of the British Isles study
A genetic map of Britain created by the People of the British Isles study

The Romans, Danish Vikings and Normans, despite conquering Britain, seem to have made not much of a mark genetically. However, there is an Anglo-Saxon component to the population of south east, central and eastern England and, as might be expected, the inhabitants of Orkney are partly Norse (Norwegian). In both these areas, the earlier populations were not wiped out but merged with the invaders.

Amongst the surprising discoveries was the fact that many of the groups in north and west Britain seem to have been living in the same areas as their Celtic-speaking tribal ancestors since at least the 6th century. If you’re Welsh you may be more genetically similar to an Ice Age settler than you are to someone from Bristol or Liverpool. If you’re Cornish, you are most likely from a genetically different group to a Devonian.

And if you have ever thought of yourself as belonging to an ancient Celtic kingdom, you’d better decide which one as there was no single ‘Celtic’ genetic group. In fact, the parts of the UK in which the Celtic language survived longest (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are among the most different from each other genetically.

While our ancestral history is very interesting, it is not the primary purpose of the research study. Instead, the research group, led by Sir Walter Bodmer and Professor Peter Donnelly, is looking to decipher the genetic structure of the UK in order to track down genes associated with common human diseases.