It seems many Romans stopped their roamin' in England
Studies show that people living in the south east of England may have got their DNA from Romans
The Romans may have given England impressive roads, plumbing and an entirely new calendar, but it was always thought that when they left Britain they took their DNA with them.
Previous studies have shown that the legionnaires left little genetic legacy before returning to their homeland to defend the Roman Empire from marauding barbarians in the 5th century.
But new research could be about to prove otherwise.
A recent study by Harvard University found a strange genetic disparity emerged in south-east England around the Iron Age and Roman Period.
At that time most Britons were descended from the Beaker People, a group of farmers who migrated from the central Europe around 2,750BC, and who replaced 90% of Britain’s gene pool within just a few hundred years.
Yet new studies of ancient skeletons showed that people in the south-east were getting their DNA from elsewhere, and now researchers at Harvard are trying to find out from whom.
So far they have three theories. Either a small pocket of ancient Britons, such as those who built Stonehenge, survived and set up a last ditch colony, holding out in isolation until they began mixing with groups in the south-east. Alternatively, an entirely different group may have migrated from Europe.
But the third theory is the most controversial. The strange genetic disparity could prove for the first time that many of the Romans soldiers stayed in Britain after all, starting families and leaving a lasting legacy written in bone.
Professor David Reich, a specialist in ancient DNA at Harvard, has begun sampling 1,000 new skeletons from the period to find out where the truth lies.
“We see changes in ancestry in the south-east of Britain by the Roman period compared to 1,000 years before,” said Reich.
“This means that there must have been admixture into south-eastern Britain in the Iron Age or Roman period that did not affect the north to the same extent.
“However, we don’t know the details of how this occurred and several explanations are possible. We are just starting out on this project.”
The migration of the Beaker People at the end of the Neolithic period, some 4,000 years ago, is generally considered to be one of the most significant events ever to shape Britain.
Suddenly graves contained stylised bell shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and v-shaped buttons, previously only seen in continental Europe.
But at some point around the Iron Age, around 800BC, DNA evidence shows that groups in the south-east mixed with an entirely new population, possibly the Romans, who occupied Britain from 43AD until 410AD.
Professor Mark Robinson of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology said even if Roman veterans had stayed they would have not been Italian.
“There has never been evidence for a significant presence of Romans from Italy in Britain other than during the initial 43AD conquest,” said Robinson, who in 2015 published a groundbreaking study showing Britain is still genetically divided into Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
“For most of the period of Roman Britain there would only have been a few high-ranking officials from Italy.
“If their results are due to settlement in the Roman period, the most likely source would be legionary veterans who decided not to return home after their discharge. The largest group of them would probably have been recruits from the Rhineland. Perhaps settled army veterans encouraged further migration from the Rhineland and Gaul.”
Commenting on the other theories, Robinson said there was no evidence that Neolithic farming communities survived in Britain after the arrival of the Beaker People, although he said that a new migration from Europe was a possibility.
“We do not have good evidence for this from the material culture but Caesar refers to the settlement of Belgae in this area of Britain in the mid-first century BC,” Prof Robinson added.
“These were a people who inhabited an area of Gaul including what is now part of north-east France, Belgium and the west Netherlands. A completely unknown migration is also a possibility.”
– © The Daily Telegraph