Roman-Era London May Have Been as Ethnically Diverse as Today
London appears to have been just as ethnically diverse when it was founded by ancient Romans as it is now, when only 45 percent of its residents are Caucasian and people of various neighborhoods speak more than 100 languages. Researchers examined the DNA and teeth of four skeletons from the Roman era to find these people were from all over the map. And the Museum of London has 20,000 more ancient skeletons that promise to give a detailed history of the English city.
Researchers from three institutions, including the London Museum, have analyzed the DNA to test just how diverse this major world city was from its founding in 50 AD. The analysis of the four skeletons showed they had various combinations of African, southern and northern European, West Eurasian and Near Eastern ancestry. One was possibly a gladiator who died from a blow to his skull, and another was apparently a rich Roman citizen.
While the sample is small, the researchers intend to analyze DNA from others of the 20,000 skeletons dating back 5,500 years that the museum holds.
“We have always understood that Roman London was a culturally diverse place and now science is giving us certainty,” said a museum curator, Caroline McDonald, in a news release. “People born in Londinium lived alongside people from across the Roman Empire exchanging ideas and cultures, much like the London we know today.”
A model of Londinium during the Roman era (SouthEastern Star / Flickr)
London Museum researchers worked with scientists at Canada’s McMaster University and England’s Durham University to reconstruct the DNA of four people. The remains of the 20,000 people are stored in cardboard boxes in a storehouse. The DNA analysis reveals where the people came from and how they lived and died. Analyses of more skeletons is expected to greatly expand knowledge of London’s history.
One of the individuals, whom the researchers named “the Lant Street teenager,” was about 14, grew up in North Africa and had maternal DNA common in southeastern Europe and western Eurasia. In addition to analyzing their DNA they looked at the chemicals in these individuals’ teeth to determine where they had lived. While she had blue eyes, her skeleton showed evidence she may have some sub-Saharan Africa ancestry. “Like many people living in the capital today, she had travelled a long distance to be in London,” the BBC wrote.
“The Mansell Street man,” as he was dubbed, was over 45 years old and had very dark brown hair, brown eyes, and his maternal mitochondrial DNA showed he was from North Africa. But the chemistry of his teeth reveals that he grew up in London. He had bone deformations now associated with a type of diabetes caused by a diet rich in protein. He also had periodontal disease.
Wall painting (1st century AD) depicting a multigenerational and multicultural banquet (public domain)
They also looked at a man who died from a head injury whom they think may have been a gladiator at Londinium’s amphitheater. His head was dumped in an open pit. Analysis showed he had black hair, dark brown eyes and was likely born outside of Britain. His mitochondrial DNA showed ancestry in Eastern Europe and the Near East, the press release says, adding that he suffered from periodontal disease.
Finally, they analyzed a skeleton of a Roman woman, a first-generation Londoner, buried near Harper Road with grave goods that showed she was of high status in her community. She probably was born in Britain, but her maternal ancestry shows links to northern Europe. She had dark brown hair, brown eyes and she too suffered from periodontal disease.
It’s interesting to note that this woman’s chromosomes reveal she was genetically a male but physically a female, something that intrigues researchers.
Featured image: This skeleton was of a woman who was a first generation Londoner with northern European ancestry who was likely born in Britain. She was buried with grave goods that made researchers think she was of high status in her community. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of London
By: Mark Miller