The “first black Briton” that lived in an English village 1,800 years ago turns out to be most likely a lady from Cyprus, according to new DNA analysis.
The ancient skeleton discovered in Beachy Head, East Sussex, lived during the Roman period, around 125 to 245 AD.
She died when she was very young – probably only about 20 or 21 – and we don’t know how she died. There’s no evidence of disease or any wounds. She would have stood between 4 feet 9 inches and 5 feet 1 inch (1.45 m and 1.55 m) tall.
DNA analysis of the remains of the woman by the Crick Institute found that although she was born in the Eastbourne area of Britain, “her ancestry was Southern European, most likely from Cyprus” and not from Africa as initially believed.
Plague honoring “first black Briton” removed
A plaque installed by the BBC honoring the “Beachy Head Lady” in the village of East Dean has since been removed.
The plaque was placed in an east Sussex village by the BBC as part of their 2016 Black and British series where they billed the woman as the earliest “black Briton”, claiming she was of African origin.
The now-removed plaque read: “The remains of ‘Beachy Head Woman’ were found near this site. Of African origin, she lived in East Sussex 2nd –3rd century AD.”
It had been installed at the village’s East Dean cricket club, close to where archaeologists had discovered the 1,800-year-old remains of the woman.
In the BBC program, fronted by historian Prof David Olusoga, the Beachy Head Lady was presented as being of “sub-Saharan African” origin, with a reconstruction of her features.
It was one of several plaques installed as part of the BBC series to honor black Britons across history.
An article by Jo Seaman, a Beachy Head expert who carried out initial research into the remains, was updated in 2022 to include the note: “DNA analysis has since concluded that although she grew up in Eastbourne, the place of her ancestry is in southern Europe – most likely Cyprus.”
The first person from Cyprus in Britain?
The mystery remains as to how the woman from Cyprus ended up in a small village in England.
Before the First World War, very few Cypriots migrated to the UK and the British Cypriot population at this time was around 150, according to historian Stavros Panteli.
Migration from Cyprus to the UK has occurred in part due to the colonial links between the countries and the internal conflict that followed Cyprus’ independence from the British Empire in 1960. Migration peaked at the time of independence but has continued on a smaller scale.