The girl was only 10 or 11 years old when she died in the small village of Eastry, Kent. She was buried with a pot, a comb and a knife, as was common practice in the 7th century. What startled the researchers who analysed the DNA from her skeleton was her African heritage. Some 33% of her DNA – from her father’s side – was from the Esan or Yoruba groups in West Africa.
Scientists from the University of Central Lancashire carried out the DNA sampling as part of a big European research project. They found that after the Roman occupation of Britain ended, there was mass migration from northern Europe into the British Isles. Quite how ‘Updown Girl’ (as she was dubbed by the researchers) found her way to Eastry will remain a mystery – was she part of a group who crossed the English Channel or was her father perhaps a trader?
What we can be sure about is that she was not the first African in what we now call England. It is well known that African soldiers were in the Roman army of occupation, as there is evidence of them along Hadrian’s Wall. Septimius Severus, the first African-born Roman emperor, actually died in York, in AD 211. Around 10 years ago, a Roman cemetery in Leicester was excavated and six out of the 83 skeletons there were found to have “African cranial features”, according to BBC News. They were not all migrants either: two had been born in England.
Large-scale use of DNA analysis is beginning to transform our understanding of the diversity of the population of Britain. It’s providing evidence that even 1,500-2,000 years ago people were mobile, travelling across continents and in some cases ending up thousands of miles from where they were born.
Updown Girl’s story is fascinating, but really not so surprising. She is just one fragment in the vast and complex ethnic mosaic of the peoples of the British Isles, which has included African soldiers, black servants in the Tudor court, Jews, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jutes, Goths, Normans, Romanies, Huguenots and countless others.
The story continues…