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The Beaker people: a new population for ancient Britain

Ancient DNA shows that the culture that brought Bronze Age technology to Britain was connected to a migration that almost completely replaced the island's earlier inhabitants.

Museum scientists were part of an international team that examined DNA from over 400 prehistoric skeletons, drawn from sites across western and central Europe.

The study looked at people buried before and after the arrival of the Beaker culture, which spread across Europe and can be tracked through its distinctive pottery.

Prof Ian Barnes, Research Leader in Ancient DNA at the Museum, explains, 'We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after this time have a very different DNA profile to those who came before. It seems that there is a large population turnover.'

In continental Europe, however, the story is different. The new ideas and technologies appear to have spread among different peoples without large-scale migration.

Beaker pottery from two different Bronze Age locations. The pot on the left  is from Sierentz in France (© Anthony Denaire) , and from Bathgate in Scotland (© National Museums Scotland) on the right.

Beaker ware from different regions shared many characteristics. The pot on the left  is from Sierentz in France (© Anthony Denaire) , and from Bathgate in Scotland (© National Museums Scotland) on the right. 

What Beaker pottery can tell us

Pottery is an example of how studying artefacts opens windows into past cultures. Around 4,500 years ago, a new, bell-shaped pottery style appeared in Iberia, in present-day Spain and Portugal. These 'bell-beakers' quickly spread across Europe, reaching Britain fewer than 100 years later.

Archaeologists have been unsure whether the spread of Beaker pottery - and the culture associated with it - represented a large-scale migration of people, or was simply due to the exchange of new cultures and ideas.

The study helps resolves this century-old debate, says Museum archaeologist Dr Tom Booth: 'The question of whether new things spread by the movement of people or ideas has been one of the most important and long-running questions in archaeology, and it's fascinating to see that both are the case for the Beaker culture.'

Who were the Beaker people?

The people who were part of the Beaker culture can be identified as they were buried with distinctive artefacts such as their pottery. The researchers compared the DNA from skeletons buried around Europe from two different periods: before the Beaker culture arrived there and afterwards.

The study shows that the Beaker culture spread into central Europe from Iberia without a significant movement of people. Skeletons from Beaker burials in Iberia are not genetically close to central European Beaker skeletons.

Large megalithic structures such Stonehenge were built in Britain by Neolithic (or New Stone Age) people, who were replaced by the Bronze Age Beaker population

Large megalithic structures such Stonehenge were built in Britain by Neolithic (or New Stone Age) people, who were replaced by the Bronze Age Beaker population © .aditya. licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via flickr

Population change in Bronze Age Britain

Britain saw significant population changes, however. Beaker culture was taken up by a group of people living in Central Europe whose ancestors had previously migrated from the Eurasian Steppe. This group continued to migrate west and finally arrived in Britain around 4,400 years ago. (See How does Cheddar Man fit into this? box and Population movements into Britain maps at the bottom of this page.)

The DNA data suggests that over a span of several hundred years, the migrations of people from continental Europe led to an almost complete replacement of Britain's earlier inhabitants, the Neolithic communities who were responsible for huge megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge.

The DNA also shows that the Beaker folk would have had generally different pigmentation that of the population they replaced, who had olive-brown skin, dark hair and brown eyes. In comparison, the Beaker folk brought genes significant reduction in skin and eye pigmentation, with lighter skin, blue eyes and blonde hair becoming more common in the population.

Big science

This multi-authored research is the largest study of ancient human DNA ever conducted. Much of the analysis of skeletal remains from England and Wales was conducted at the Museum and University College London, as part of a larger study of ancient human DNA in Britain. The Museum work was funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Selina Brace, who led the ancient DNA lab work at the Museum, says, 'It's been a fantastic experience to work with colleagues from teams across Europe and the US, using the state-of-the-art ancient DNA analyses we have developed for museum specimens.'

How does Cheddar Man fit into this?

The first inhabitants of Britain after the last Ice Age ended (about 11,700 years ago) were hunter-gatherers with dark skin and light eyes.

Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete skeleton, belonged to this group. He lived around 10,000 years ago. But by the time the Beaker folk came to Britain 4,400 years ago, the hunter-gatherers had long since gone.

In fact, farmers with brown eyes and lighter skin than Cheddar Man's migrated to Britain 6,000 years ago. They were the ones to replace the hunter-gatherers, and were in turn replaced by the Beaker folk's own migration wave, roughly 1,600 years later.

How then, do modern British people (for those without a recent history of migration) share 10% of their ancestry with Cheddar Man? Read our FAQ to find out.

Population movements

11,700 years ago (slide one)

About 11,700 years ago, glaciers permanently receded from Britain as the last Ice Age ended, but sea levels were lower. Hunter-gatherers migrated into Britain via a land bridge and established a small population. These are the populations to which Cheddar Man (alive around 10,000 years ago) belonged.

DNA analysis suggests their general appearance was likely to be:
Eyes: blue/blue-green/hazel
Skin: intermediate dark brown/black
Hair: dark

6,000 years ago (slide two)

About 6,000 years ago, farmers originating from the Mediterranean moved into Britain. Their ancestors had come from modern-day Turkey. This farming population was probably much larger than that of the hunter-gatherers, and brought new technologies that marked the beginning of Neolithic (or New Stone Age) Britain.

Studies suggest that the earlier hunter-gatherers contributed little ancestry to the population that made up Neolithic Britain.

DNA analyses suggest their appearance was variable but typically likely to be:
Eyes: brown
Skin: intermediate-dark brown
Hair: dark

4,400 years ago (slide three)

About 4,400 years ago, a second population of farmers entered Britain, bringing with them distinctive Beaker pottery. This population came over from continental Europe. Their ancestors had mostly come from the Eurasian Steppe. They brought new technologies that marked the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Early Bronze Age.

Studies suggest that within a few hundred years of this migration, only 10% of the British population's gene pool came from the earlier Neolithic famers.

DNA analysis suggests their general appearance was variable but typically likely to be:
Eyes: lighter
Skin: lighter-intermediate
Hair: lighter