This week: Archaeogenetics

Anglo-Saxon grave excavated at Sedgeford in Norfolk, 2005. IMAGE: Beltic/WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.

In the decades since the cracking of the human genome, the study of ancient DNA – known as archaeogenetics – has had a dramatic effect on our understanding of the distant past.

The analysis of genetic material preserved in archaeological remains, such as bones and preserved tissues, has provided us with new insights into our ancestors’ family relationships, social habits and burial customs, allowing us to develop a much clearer picture of what life would have been like many hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

At the same time, more far-reaching studies have allowed us also to make sense of population movements, and to detect patterns of human migration in ways that were not previously possible.

One particularly startling revelation, enabled by the analysis of ancient DNA, was that the arrival of the Bronze Age in Britain in around 2500 BC was accompanied by such large-scale movements of people from Central Europe that the island’s earlier inhabitants (including the Neolithic communities who built Stonehenge) were almost completely replaced within the space of just a few hundred years.

Ancient DNA even tells us what these new arrivals – known as ‘Beaker folk’ for their distinctive style of pottery – would have looked like, suggesting that their skin and hair colour would generally have been different to that of the population they replaced.

As we discover this week on The Past, the pace of technological change in recent decades means that the field of archaeogenetics continues to advance at a furious rate, forcing us to grapple with new questions, and to challenge long-held assumptions about migration, integration, and assimilation, in the face of the huge amount of precise, rigorous data being delivered by laboratory science.

In a special issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology, Joscha Gretzinger and Stephan Schiffels explain the science behind a ground-breaking recent ancient DNA project that revolutionises our thinking about another time of great upheaval in Britain – as the Roman period gave way to what is known as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (or early medieval) England – and reveal what it tells us about this little-understood chapter in our history.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archive to discover more about archaeogenetics and ancient migration: we heard how the largest ancient DNA study to date shed new light on the extraordinary impact of the Beaker folk’s arrival in Britain; we learned what analysis of human remains has revealed about life and death in Bronze Age Orkney; and we even looked into the sometimes straining relationship between archaeologists and geneticists themselves, as their two worlds collide.

And finally, if all that leaves you longing for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around ancient migration. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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