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Iceland: Physical Anthropology of Colonization and Evolution

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - IPACE (Iceland: Physical Anthropology of Colonization and Evolution)

Berichtszeitraum: 2017-08-01 bis 2019-07-31

What is the problem/issue being addressed?

Migration has played a central role in the development of modern human biocultural diversity. As such, it has been a key topic of research in archaeology and physical anthropology, with early European migrations receiving an especially large amount of interest. Of the many migrations that occurred in Europe before and during the Medieval period, two events in particular dramatically changed the genetic and cultural identity of European island populations. These migration events were the Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries (Weale et al. 2002) and the founding of Iceland between the 9th and 10th centuries. Despite the impact that these migrations have had on the biocultural landscape of the islands, both events are plagued by important questions that have yet to be fully answered. First, there remains disagreement among scholars about whether the Anglo-Saxon migration represented a replacement of the Britons by Saxons or whether there was an acculturation of the Britons to Anglo-Saxon customs. As for Iceland, scholars are still uncertain about what populations contributed to the founding of the island. Although it is accepted that Vikings from Scandinavia were heavily involved in the founding of Iceland, the possible involvement of women from Ireland and the British Isles has been debated. Considering the importance of these events for understanding the cultural and genetic landscape of early Britain and Iceland, I designed a project that will provide novel evidence to help answer these two main questions – 1) Who is buried in Anglo-Saxon graves, Saxons or Britons? And 2) Were individuals from the British Isles involved in the founding of Iceland? To answer these questions, I will compare the three-dimensional cranial shape variation of individuals from the target populations (early Icelanders, early Anglo-Saxons) with individuals from the posited origin populations (Scandinavia, Saxony, Netherlands, British Isles).
Why is it important for society?

The findings of this project will be culturally and historically important for Northern Europe, especially Iceland and Britain. In addition, the findings will also highlight the benefit of using digital anthropology and shape analyses to identify genetic affinity of human skeletal remains, an issue that is becoming increasingly important as the benefits of using non-destructive techniques are recognized throughout bioarchaeology.

What are the overall objectives?
The study has two main aims:
1) to explore patterns of cranial variation of the target populations;
2) to identify similarities and differences in cranial shape between the target and origin populations that may indicate genetic relatedness.
These aims will be accomplished by:
1) using 3D landmark based GM to capture the cranial shape of all target and origin populations;
2) performing an inter-population comparison of cranial shape to identify characteristics that may indicate population affinity between the target and origin populations.
Data collection began in August 2017 and was completed by August 2019. The final sample is composed of over 600 individuals from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, and England. Crania were photographed using photogrammetry and high-quality 3D scans were produced. This methodology was chosen because upon refection at the start of the project, I decided that creating a digital archive of cranial shape would both help persevere the archaeological remains as well as allow for future research. These scans will be made open-access and freely available to other researchers.

A proof-of-concept study for this project was undertaken by an undergraduate student, Lucy Timbrell, as her dissertation project. I supervised the project and provided all data and helped with the analyses and interpretations. The project compared the shape of the temporal bone of two English archaeological populations – the Romano-British site of Poundbury, London, and the Monastic Pictish Cemetery in Portmahomack, Scotland. The aim was to determine if the shape of the temporal bone can distinguish between relatively closely related populations. The findings were positive, with the two populations being distinguished with an accuracy rate of 84.7%. This study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports (2019: 26, 101885).


Analyses for the main papers of this project are currently being undertaken and it is estimated that the first publication (1) will be ready for submission for publication in January 2020, with the completion date of the remaining publications (2,3,4) estimated to be December 2020.

(1) ‘Who founded Iceland? A 3D analysis of cranio-facial variation to determine the role of Gaelic individuals in the founding of Iceland’
(2) ‘Anglo-Saxon Replacement or Acculturation? A 3D analysis of cranio-facial variation to identify genetic affinity of early Anglo-Saxon populations’
(3) ‘Cranial shape variation: A non-destructive alternative to DNA analyses?’
(4) 'Impact of migration and environmental transitions on human cranial variation'
This multidisciplinary and innovative project combines archaeological science, bioarchaeological research, and European history. It will be the first project use 3D shape analysis techniques to investigate the role played by peoples of the British Isles in the founding of Iceland. In addition, a secondary study will also investigate the geographical origins of the individuals buried in Anglo-Saxon graves in the Southeast of England and As such, the findings of the project will significantly contribute to the fields of anthropology, archaeology, and history by answering fundamental questions surrounding two key colonization events in Northern Europe – 1) To what extent were people from the British Isles involved in the founding of Iceland?, 2) How did the transitions in genetic diversity due to isolation and/or changes in climate and diet influence Icelandic cranial variation? And 3) Did the Anglo-Saxon migration into Britain involve the replacement of the local populations by peoples immigrating from the continent or did the local population assimilate to the Anglo-Saxon customs? These questions have been debated in archaeology for years and the current project has the potential to offer new evidence based on the skeletal remains of peoples contemporaneous with the migration events. Resolving these questions will ultimately provide valuable insights into the genetic and cultural identity of the peoples of Britain and Iceland, as well as illuminate the role of migration and colonization on the biocultural landscape of early Europe.

In addition, this project provides an opportunity to highlight and promote the benefits of using of cranial shape variation analyses instead of, or in combination with, ancient DNA analyses. Since shape analyses are non-destructive and relatively cost-efficient, they are an ideal alternative to ancient DNA analyses.
Data collection for project - photogrammetry