Harvard’s New Genetics Research on Ancient Britain Contains Insights on Language, Ancestry, Kinship, Milk

Cliffs End Farm Kent Migrant

A photograph of the skeleton of one of the four individuals who we have sequenced who we think is likely to have participated in the migration we detect into southern Britain and to have displaced half the ancestry of the local population. This skeleton was excavated from the site of Cliffs End Farm in Kent. Credit: Wessex Archaeology

Two new studies highlight technological advances in large-scale genomics and open windows into the lives of ancient people.

New research reveals a major migration to the island of Great Britain 3,000 years ago and offers fresh insights into the languages spoken at the time, the ancestry of present-day England and Wales, and even ancient habits of dairy consumption.

The findings are described in Nature by a team of more than 200 international researchers led by Harvard geneticists David Reich and Nick Patterson. Michael Isakov, a Harvard undergraduate who discovered the existence of the migration, is one of the co-first authors.

Bronze Age Tools From Adabrock Hoard

This image is of bronze age tools from the National Museums of Scotland, which could give readers a sense of the material culture associated with people who lived at the time of the migration. Credit: Bronze Age tools curated the National Museums of Scotland

The analysis is one of two Reich-led studies of

As part of the genetic analysis, the researchers found that the ability to digest cow’s milk dramatically increased in Britain from 1200 to 200 B.C., which is about a millennium earlier than it did in central Europe. These findings illuminate a different role for dairy consumption in Britain during this period compared with the rest of mainland Europe. More study is needed to define that role, the researchers said. Increased milk tolerance would have provided a big advantage in the former of higher survival rates among the children of people carrying this genetic adaptation.

“It’s sort of incredible that we have geneticists, we have statisticians, we have archaeologists, linguists, and even chemical analysis coming together.”
Michael Isakov, undergraduate who discovered the 3,000-year-old migration

The newly discovered ancestry change happened around 3,000 years ago, more than a millennium and a half before the Saxon period. The team was aware of a migration into England at some point during this gap because of an observation they made in research published in 2016. That study showed that contemporary English people have more DNA from early European farmers than people who lived in England about 4,000 years ago. The team set out to collect DNA from later periods to detect the shift.

The discontinuity — a specific point in time when the percentage of farmer ancestry in English genomes changed — was first noticed in the summer of 2019 by Isakov, an applied mathematics concentrator. He had started working as a researcher in Reich’s lab the summer after his first year and was able to increase the statistical power of the group’s ancestry tests. When he noticed some outliers in the data from people living 3,000 years ago, he led a closer analysis and discovered the migration.

“It’s an extraordinary outcome and I’m very happy that I was able to get through it,” said Isakov, who will graduate in May.

The second paper looks at kinship practices of 35 individuals who lived about 5,700 years ago and were buried in a tomb at Hazleton North in Gloucestershire, England. The researchers found a 27-person family — three times larger than the second-largest documented ancient family — whose kin relationships could be precisely determined by analyzing their DNA. The team created a family tree that covered five generations and found examples of polygyny, polyandry, adoption, and a key role for both patrilineal and matrilineal descent.

The lab’s research illustrates the interdisciplinary collaborations that are required to tell the richest stories of the ancient past, Isakov said.

“It’s sort of incredible that we have geneticists, we have statisticians, we have archaeologists, linguists, and even chemical analysis coming together. I think that the fact that we’re able to like merge all these fields and have an actual insight that’s culturally important is a great example of interdisciplinary science.”

For more on this research, see Ancient DNA From Neolithic Tombs in Britain Reveals the World’s Oldest Family Tree.


“Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age” by Nick Patterson, Michael Isakov, Thomas Booth, Lindsey Büster, Claire-Elise Fischer, Iñigo Olalde, Harald Ringbauer, Ali Akbari, Olivia Cheronet, Madeleine Bleasdale, Nicole Adamski, Eveline Altena, Rebecca Bernardos, Selina Brace, Nasreen Broomandkhoshbacht, Kimberly Callan, Francesca Candilio, Brendan Culleton, Elizabeth Curtis, Lea Demetz, Kellie Sara Duffett Carlson, Daniel M. Fernandes, M. George B. Foody, Suzanne Freilich, Helen Goodchild, Aisling Kearns, Ann Marie Lawson, Iosif Lazaridis, Matthew Mah, Swapan Mallick, Kirsten Mandl, Adam Micco, Megan Michel, Guillermo Bravo Morante, Jonas Oppenheimer, Kadir Toykan Özdogan, Lijun Qiu, Constanze Schattke, Kristin Stewardson, J. Noah Workman, Fatma Zalzala, Zhao Zhang, Bibiana Agustí, Tim Allen, Katalin Almássy, Luc Amkreutz, Abigail Ash, Christèle Baillif-Ducros, Alistair Barclay, László Bartosiewicz, Katherine Baxter, Zsolt Bernert, Jan Blažek, Mario Bodružic, Philippe Boissinot, Clive Bonsall, Pippa Bradley, Marcus Brittain, Alison Brookes, Fraser Brown, Lisa Brown, Richard Brunning, Chelsea Budd, Josip Burmaz, Sylvain Canet, Silvia Carnicero-Cáceres, Morana Cauševic-Bully, Andrew Chamberlain, Sébastien Chauvin, Sharon Clough, Natalija Condic, Alfredo Coppa, Oliver Craig, Matija Crešnar, Vicki Cummings, Szabolcs Czifra, … Clive Waddington, Paula Ware, Paul Wilkinson, Linda Wilson, Rob Wiseman, Eilidh Young, Joško Zaninovic, Andrej Žitnan, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Peter de Knijff, Ian Barnes, Peter Halkon, Mark G. Thomas, Douglas J. Kennett, Barry Cunliffe, Malcolm Lillie, Nadin Rohland, Ron Pinhasi, Ian Armit and David Reich, 22 December 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04287-4

“A high-resolution picture of kinship practices in an Early Neolithic tomb” by Chris Fowler, Iñigo Olalde, Vicki Cummings, Ian Armit, Lindsey Büster, Sarah Cuthbert, Nadin Rohland, Olivia Cheronet, Ron Pinhasi and David Reich, 22 December 2021 Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04241-4

This research was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Allen Discovery Center program, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the European Research Council.