DNA shows Welsh and Cornish to be ‘purest’ Britons

Jonathan Leake, Science Editor Published: 17 June 2012

NATIVE Welsh people could lay claim to be the most ancient of Britons, according to scientists who have drawn up a genetic map of the British Isles. They studied variations in DNA taken from thousands of people living in rural areas. The aim was to work out where the ancestors of people in different regions came from — and how much they have intermingled over the centuries.

The results showed that the Welsh, followed by the Cornish, remain among the most genetically distinct of all the groups on mainland Britain. They carry more DNA that could date back to the tribes that colonised Britain after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.

“The people of Wales and Cornwall are different from the rest of southern and central England,” said Peter Donnelly, professor of statistical science at Oxford University and director of the Wellcome Trust centre for human genetics.

Donnelly and his colleagues, who will be describing their work at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition, to be held in London on July 3-8, say there is some uncertainty about why the Cornish and Welsh have retained such a distinct profile, similar to that found in the peoples of Ireland and France. One possibility is that they are “relic” populations, tracing their ancestry back to the tribes that first moved into Europe and Britain as the ice receded.

Elsewhere, such peoples would since have been displaced or diluted by migrants.

Another is that the western parts of Britain were populated by migrants from the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain.

They are not, however, the most genetically distinctive of all British people tested. That claim lay with the people of the Orkneys, whose genes show them to be Scandinavian — as might be expected for islands that were controlled by Vikings from AD875 to 1472.

In the study Donnelly and his colleagues analysed the differences at 500,000 points in the DNA of 2,000 people. Only rural dwellers were included, and all had to have had all four grandparents born in the same area. The researchers also compared the genetic profiles of British populations with those of European groups, to get an idea of where the ancestors of modern Britons hailed from.

The Cornish and Welsh are likely to be delighted to have their identities confirmed — but the study could undermine similar claims by other regions.

The people of Norfolk, for example, have long claimed descent from the Iceni, the ancient tribe of which Boadicea is said to have been the warrior queen. However, Donnelly and the study leader, Professor Walter Bodmer, a leading Oxford geneticist, found that the people of East Anglia are genetically little different from those found across the south as far west as Dorset. Similarly, the DNA taken from Scots showed they had strong genetic similarities to the northern English.

Donnelly said people in southeast and central England had some DNA from the pre-Roman population of England but with additions from subsequent Anglo-Saxon and Danish Viking settlers. “The people of this region are a real genetic cocktail.”

Article in THE SUNDAY TIMES 17TH June 2012

Save Cornwall, Camborne, Kernow 17.06.2012

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3 Responses to DNA shows Welsh and Cornish to be ‘purest’ Britons

  1. Cathy Olds says:

    Speaking as a foreigner (Aussie), could someone please explain to me how come BBC Wales played this story up as being significant to its target audience ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18489735 ), yet BBC Cornwall’s site didn’t even mention it?

    At least the Royal Society’s summer exhibition’s website isn’t afraid to suggest Cornwall has a unique place in the genetic makeup of the British Isles ( http://sse.royalsociety.org/2012/exhibits/genetic-maps/ )!

  2. Craig Weatherhill says:

    Par for the course for Radio “Cornwall”, Cathy. It’s basically a Home Counties branch of the BBC. Most of the accents heard on there are from SE England: hardly a Cornish voice to be heard. Despite any protests, it insists on demoting us to a mere English county, and not a constitutionally unique Duchy. Cornish content is minimal. They appear to be part of a Borg-like assimilation process and have yet to learn that resistance is not futile…it’s guaranteed!

  3. Myron Peebles says:

    The “History of England” -1926 by G.M. Trevelyan, describes this scenario quite well. That the early peoples of Briton were “Pre-Celts” presumably of Iberian ancestry and described by Julius Caesar as dark haired people. They presumably “inhabited the Island following the last Ice age and thousands or years before the taller and fair haired “red Celts’ (“late comers into Western Europe”) who entered Britain and Ireland just a few hundred years before the arrival of Caesar..” This DNA project (unavailable in 1926) seems to confirm what has been written.

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