Wednesday 26 October 2016

2,000-year-old Londoners weren't from London, DNA reveals

Published 23/11/2015 | 17:51

Remains found in London of what is thought to be a Roman gladiator reveal he probably came from Eastern Europe or the Middle East
Remains found in London of what is thought to be a Roman gladiator reveal he probably came from Eastern Europe or the Middle East

London was a cosmopolitan city with an ethnically diverse population from the time it was created after the Roman invasion 2,000 years ago, a study has found.

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Early results of a DNA analysis of more than 20,000 human remains stored at the Museum of London revealed some surprises.

Four of the very first Londoners included one individual who grew up in North Africa, another with African ancestry, and a third from continental Europe or the middle east. Only one of the four was a native Briton, and there is a question mark over her gender identity.

Caroline McDonald, senior curator at the museum, told BBC News: " The thing to remember with the original Londoners is that they were not born here. Every first generation Londoner was from somewhere else - whether it was somewhere else in Britain, somewhere else on the continent, somewhere else in the Mediterranean, somewhere else from Africa.

"So the stories we can tell about our ancient population are absolutely relevant to modern contemporary London because these are our stories - these are people just like us."

Working with scientists at Durham University and McMaster University in Canada, museum researchers were able to piece together the DNA of the four individuals.

The most complete skeleton studied was that of a 14-year-old girl dubbed "The Lant Street Teenager".

Her DNA, and chemicals in her teeth, showed that she grew up in North Africa. She had blue eyes and a genetic lineage that was common in southern and eastern Europe.

A reconstruction of what the girl might have looked like was created by the BBC with the help of the museum's experts.

One of the four, a man, may have been a gladiator. His skull was found in a pit along with the heads of 38 other men aged between 18 and 45, all of whom had met violent deaths.

He is not thought to have been born in London and his DNA signature pointed to an ancestral line rooted in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

A second man was over 45 years old and although he grew up in London, both his remains and DNA showed a strong African connection.

The sole native Briton, known as "Harper Road Woman", died soon after the Roman invasion in AD43.

She had adopted a Roman lifestyle and was buried with Roman pottery and belongings.

In a puzzling twist, her chromosomes show she was genetically a male, even though physically she was a woman.

The research is featured in a new display at the Museum of London opening on November 27.

Press Association

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