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The Romans May Have Left A Genetic Legacy In The People Living In Southeast Britain

The Romans may have left more than their architecture behind in the UK.

The Romans may have left more than their architecture behind in the UK. tipwam/Shutterstock

There is a strange mystery concerning the people from the southeast of Britain: While people have lived in the region for thousands of years and were thought to have moved freely, their genes tell a different story. Now researchers are starting to explore why.

It was recently discovered that the genetic foundations for the UK were laid down during the Neolithic period around 4,500 years ago when a wave from Europe, known collectively as the Beaker people, arrived in Britain. Amazingly, genetics found that these continental interlopers replaced 90 percent of the native Britons over a relatively short few hundred years.


But this is not the end of the story. At some point during either the Iron Age or potentially the Roman period, something happened in the southeast of the country that altered the genetic composition of the people to such a degree that the population diverged from everyone else. Now a team of scientists have launched an ambitious project to analyze the DNA from 1,000 ancient human remains, an impressive goal considering that the global set of DNA sequences from ancient people to date stands at 1,400.

The researchers suspect that there is one of three things going on with the genetic anomaly from the southeast of England, in which it appears that Bronze Age people mixed with a population similar to the Britons that existed before the Beaker culture crossed the channel.   

The first possibility is that at some point an outside group of people migrated from the continent and settled here, bringing their different genetic mix with them. This could have happened around the Iron Age, and they could have brought Celtic languages with them.

The second is that somehow a small pocket of the original Neolithic farmers survived in this region when the Beaker folk spread across the rest of the UK. They then may have mixed back in with the population a few hundred years later.


But a more intriguing possibility is that the genetics might be a lasting relic of the Roman occupation of Britain. It has generally been accepted that when the Roman army pulled out of Britain in 410 CE, the only trace they left behind was their architecture and innovations. But this might hint at the possibility that when the army set sail for the last time, some Romans stayed behind.

When the Roman army invaded Britain, it was not (as most assume) made up of chilly Italians who were out of their Mediterranean comfort zone. It was a hodge-podge of soldiers from across the immense Roman Empire, as well as generals. And so there is the possibility that this genetic blip seen in the southeast of Britain may have been caused by high-ranking Romans deciding to settle down and make a life in this distant outpost.   


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