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Ancient “apartheid” leaves modern imprint

July 19, 2006
Courtesy University College London
and World Science staff

When ancestors of today’s Britons invaded the land now called England, 16 centuries ago, they set up an “apartheid-like” social system that has left an enduring mark, researchers say. 

An Anglo-Saxon gold coin depicting Coenwulf, King of Mercia (796-821). One of eight known gold coins of the mid-to-late Saxon period, it is thought to be the earliest example of a gold coin in the name of an English ruler intended as part of a circulating currency. Coenwulf’s kingdom stretched from the Thames in the south to the Humber in the north, and the Welsh border in the west. His combined kingdom made him Britain's most powerful ruler in his time. (Courtesy The British Museum)

Not unlike modern South Africa’s Apartheid system—officially repealed in the early 1990s—the ancient system entailed legalized discrimination against disadvantaged ethnic groups, according to the scientists.

This, they claim, led to the elimination of most genes of England’s earlier inhabitants, in favor of those of the invading Anglo-Saxons.

“The native Britons were genetically and culturally absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons
” within a few hundred years, said Mark Thomas of University College London, a member of a research team that described the findings in a new study. 

“An initially small invading Anglo-Saxon elite could have quickly established themselves by having more children who survived to adulthood, thanks to their military power and economic advantage.” 

A social divide is also reflected in ancient texts such as the “laws of Ine,” a legal code, Thomas and colleagues said. Around the seventh century these laws put a far greater price on an Anglo-Saxon life than on that of a native Briton, whom Anglo-Saxons would call a Welshman. 

If an Anglo-Saxon was killed, the family was entitled to a payment of a fine—called “Wergild,” or blood money—two to five times higher than the fine for a Welshman’s life, the researchers said. 

The Romans ruled “Britannia” for almost four centuries until the early 400s. Then, the leaders of a disintegrating Roman empire pulled their troops from the land to deal with more pressing problems closer to home.

The remaining inhabitants, accustomed to Roman protection, had little idea how to defend themselves. They were soon overwhelmed by waves of Germanic invaders smitten with the bountiful, green land. The incoming Anglo-Saxons, as they are known, came from Germany, Holland and Denmark. They overhauled the local gene pool in less than 15 generations, according to Thomas.

In that time, the gene pool came to consist of more than 50 percent Germanic genes, the researchers claim, based on studies of the Y chromosome. The chromosome exists only in males and is thought to be a useful marker for tracking genetic changes in men because it normally passes unchanged from father to son.

Such a transformation, Thomas argued, could have resulted only from an apartheid system in which the dominant group monopolized social and economic power. In the study, published in the current online edition of the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Thomas and colleagues described computer simulations that they said demonstrate the process.

The native population is believed to have numbered more than 2 million at the time, according to Thomas’ group, whereas Anglo-Saxon immigrants between the fifth and seventh centuries numbered only between 10,000 and 200,000 depending on the estimate.

Thomas argues that the settlers enjoyed a major social and economic advantage over the native Britons for more than 300 years from the middle of the fifth century on. In this society, people lived together in a servant-master relationship in a system akin to South African apartheid, in which Blacks were the disadvantaged group. 

Anglo-Saxons probably also “prevented the native British genes getting into the Anglo-Saxon population by restricting intermarriage in a system of apartheid that left the country culturally and genetically Germanised,” Thomas said. “This is exactly what we see today—a population of largely Germanic genetic origin, speaking a principally German language.” English is a member of the family of languages known as Germanic, which also includes Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages.

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