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article imageDNA study: Why the Welsh might be the first true Brits

By Stephen Morgan     Mar 20, 2015 in Science
The English aren't English and the real Britons are the Welsh, says a fascinating new study into the DNA of different ethnic groups in Britain.
The study was carried out by Oxford University and involved 2,000 white, British participants from different parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In order to trace their origins, their DNA was compared to 6,000 people in different countries on the European continent. The paper is the culmination of 20 years work and has been published in the journal, Nature.
Sci-news says,
"The team, led by Dr Peter Donnelly of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, UK, analyzed the DNA of people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 80 km of each other."
The startling findings even surprised the researchers, since it uncovered many unexpected differences and divergences between ethnic groups across the British Isles, many of which overturned previous scientific beliefs on the subject.
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The results divide modern Britain into 17 tribes, each with distinct genetic features to varying degrees. Amazingly, the geographical areas they are found in, still reflect the lands occupied by ancestral tribes and numerous minor kingdoms in 500 AD, says the Mail Online.
Of these, the people who are most genetically different from all other people and groups in Britain are the Welsh. Indeed, the study shows that their DNA ancestry can be traced back to the first Stone Age peoples to arrive in Britain.
The BBC says Professor Peter Donnelly, of Oxford University believes that the Welsh carry DNA which can be traced back to the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago, when the retreat of the glaciers made conditions favorable for colonization.
This would make the Welsh the first Britons, predating the Anglo-Saxons by some 8,500 years and also older than other Celtic peoples, who arrived later in various waves from the continent.
The Welsh have remained more isolated from other British peoples because of their geographic situation in the far west of the country and because of the country's inhospitable, mountainous regions.
The Romans only had garrisons in low lying areas and the Anglo-Saxons stopped short of entering the country. The same applied to the Normans, who kept largely to garrison castles.
According to the BBC, Prof Donnelly said: "People from Wales are genetically relatively distinct, they look different genetically from much of the rest of mainland Britain."
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Moreover, the only other group in the world with which the Welsh share DNA similarities are the ancient and somewhat mysterious Basque people of southern France and northern Spain.
The Basques are believed to have predated other European peoples. It is thought that the ancestors of the Welsh and Basques made up the main Stone Age peoples of Europe before farming arrived.
Geneticist, Prof Steve Jones, author of a book called Y - The Descent of Man, told Wales Online that the Welsh are the most homogenous peoples in the world;
"There has been much less interbreeding in Wales than you might expect. Wales and Ireland have the most homogenous group of males of anywhere in the world, from the research that's been done so far"
"The Welsh Y chromosome" he continues, "is similar to that of the Basques. In the male line, at least, the Welsh and the Basques are survivors or relics of a period before huge numbers of farmers filled Europe from the Middle East."
The uniqueness of the Welsh DNA is underlined by the fact that it is not shared by other Celtic peoples, although there are some links to the Irish. In fact, the researchers were shocked when their assumptions that the British Celts would possess a common genetic link was proved to be wrong.
These complexities were also underlined by strong dissimilarities between the Cornish people and the rest of the UK. The Cornish people are Celts, but their DNA is quite different to other Celts and completely separate from both their close neighbors in Devon and from the rest of England, despite being geographically separated by only the Tamar river.
That distinct genetic separation continues until the present day, marked out only by a river, was described as "truly stunning" by Dr Magdalena Skipper, of the journal Nature and "an extraordinary result" by Oxford University researcher Sir Walter Bodmer.
The researchers also came across some other startling results in England.
The scientists were amazed to find that the English are 45% French and 25% German. The German side was expected, given the settlement of Germanic tribes throughout England, but the French connection wasn't foreseen.
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It was initially supposed that the French DNA in the English genome came from the French-speaking Normans, but this was not the case. The big French influence in their genes seems to have come from a wave of French immigration prior to the arrival of the Romans, but there were insufficient historical explanations to account for this.
Another unexpected feature of the English, is that they lack any trace Roman or Viking genes, despite the major role played by the two in British history. That was to be expected in Wales and Scotland, which largely escaped Roman conquest, but not in England.
It seems that the lack of Roman, Norman and Viking blood in the English is due to the fact that there was hardly any mixing between the invaders and the local population.
The different elites and their entourage kept largely to themselves and the lack of any substantial immigration from their own peoples meant they made little impact on the existing gene pool. The only people with a dominant Scandinavian influence are to be found in the northern islands of the Orkneys.
The Guardian is hosting a podcast involving Professor Peter Donnelly.
It is expected that studies such as these will also help in creating illness-related genetic studies to help fight diseases.
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