Hayley Dunn - Roots of the British: Histories, Genetics, and the Origins of the People of the Isle of Man

In this article, Hayley Dunn of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History asks who were the ancestors of the people of the British and Irish Isles?

About My Research

Roots of the British ImageThe popular understanding of the history of the British-Irish Isles is peppered with accounts of invasions and mass migrations of peoples from mainland Europe and beyond. This is reflected in the cultural identities of the people of these isles who may define themselves as of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, or Viking ancestry. Historians, archaeologists, and linguists have struggled to agree on how much truth there is in these origin stories; it is clear the answer is not as simple as people assume.

More recently geneticists have also entered the debate and it is hoped with greater collaboration between all these disciplines, that a consensus can be reached.

I wish to investigate what genetic data gathered from modern populations can tell us about the demographic history of the British and Irish Isles and in particular, whether it is possible to identify if and when any movements of people have occurred over time. There is also a wider aim of this project, which is to dispel some of the scepticism and suspicion that the archaeological community has developed towards genetic studies of population history over the last decade.

Research Approach

My project, jointly funded and supervised between the School of Archaeology and Ancient History and the Department of Genetics, allows me to draw on knowledge and experience from both these disciplines for a balanced approach.

I have focused my study on the Isle of Man which is geographically at the centre of the British and Irish Isles and also halfway along the western fringe of Europe, and so seems like a convenient place to start my exploration of the genetic landscape of the region. I am particularly interested in the specific regions of the genome that are passed exclusively down either the male or the female line, so that the prehistoric movements of both men and women can be traced.

I have enlisted volunteer DNA donors who have a deep-rooted ancestry on the island by looking for only those people with surnames that are found on the earliest Manx written documents. By detecting the tiny differences between the genomes of these individuals on the Isle of Man I can see how much immigration has occurred in prehistoric times. I can compare these to differences carried by people from other regions in the British and Irish isles and beyond, to look for shared ancestry. From this I hope to be able to detect which regions have had the most influence on the Island over the last few thousand years.

Research Findings

Modern archaeological interpretation has moved away from trying to interpret the ‘bigger picture’ through formulating generalised overarching theories, because it rarely explains the subtle regional variations in conditions and behaviours. Now, archaeologists attempt to understand the mechanisms affecting cultural change at the local level. Not only are these local differences interesting but they need to be understood as the basis of interpretations at the larger scale. Understanding at the fine scale results in a fuller, more detailed account of prehistoric events and the effects they had on the wider communities over time.

The Isle of Man is known to have been inhabited for 8000 years, when the first colonists arriving after the last Ice-Age, are thought probably to have most likely originated on the Iberian Peninsula, and would have come to the island via mainland Britain and France, following coasts and using land bridges. However, recent research looking at ancient DNA in Europe suggests that the majority of the population of the British and Irish Isles including the Isle of Man are actually descended from later migrants. These would have been immigrant farmers arriving at the British-Irish Isles around 6000 years ago, who had their origins in the Middle-East.

Subsequently, the Isle of Man formed part of a Bronze-Age network, moving precious metals and other desirable objects around the British-Irish Isles, the Atlantic fringe of Europe and beyond, for several centuries. It is also known from the much later, historical record that in the late 1st millennium AD, the Isle was an important stronghold for the Norwegian Vikings They are thought to have settled around the year 900 and even after the Viking Age came to an end, until the 13th century AD, the Manx kings continued to pay homage to the Norwegian kings What is not clear is which of these cultural events, if any, have left also left a genetic legacy on the island and by extension the rest of the British and Irish Isles.

So my project will investigate the archaeologically derived ideas about the population of the Isle of Man, but I will be looking particularly for evidence of Scandinavian influence on the gene-pool, which will give some indication of the Viking impact on the island.  Using higher resolution genetic data than has been used in previous studies, it should be possible to find shared lineages between the Isle of Man and other regions of Northern and Western Europe, which would indicate descendants of a shared common ancestor. This would then provide direct evidence of contact between the cultures.

I can use computer-simulations to assess statistically when these contacts most probably occurred, giving a time-frame for the migrations, and also to provide some indication of the number of people involved in the migrations. The project will complement similar projects which have looked at the contributions of male and female Norwegians to the populations of Ireland, Iceland, the Shetland Isles and Orkney. It will also add high resolution data to the datasets collected from the isles of the Irish Sea and the more northerly isles, which can be used in future studies of this region. This and future studies will help to establish a greater understanding of the patterns seen at the larger scale.

About Hayley Dunn

Hayley DunnHayley Dunn is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History (co-supervised by the Department of Genetics). 

Hayley is supervised by Professor Simon James (Archaeology and Ancient History) and Professor Mark Jobling (Genetics).

School of Archaeology and Ancient History
University of Leicester
University Road

Hayley will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 27 June 2013 - see Hayley's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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