Clearly the word indigenous cannot be taken literally and everyone living in Britain either arrived there, or is descended from people who arrived there, at some point or another. But, this is a gross oversimplification of the situation. Why do people speak of ‘native’ Americans or Australian ‘aborigines’? They do not, certainly, mean that these people emerged from American or Australian soil. What they do mean, however, is that these people are the oldest recorded inhabitants of their homelands, the first people that can be named.
In the case of Britain, there are indeed indigenous people that were named by ancient writers, viz, the Britons and Picts. No traditions for the immigration of these people exists, although their immigration can be inferred on linguistic grounds (Britons were Indo-European speakers). There were certainly other people before them, whose names are lost to memory, but whose genetic trace may persist in the current inhabitants. There are also non-indigenous peoples that arrived there a long time ago, ie, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Scots, Danes, Norwegians and Normans and their arrival was noted by historians. Finally, there are people that arrived in Great Britain more recently, eg, Poles and Pakistanis.
Is there any way to distinguish between all these groups?
Clearly, one possible distinction is chronological: groups that arrived earlier are more indigenous than groups that arrived later. However, this is a relative difference, which does not allow us to make a sharp distinction between indigenous and foreign. 50 generations certainly earns you more “native” points than 2, but no obvious demarcation of indigenousness exists.
However, the main distinction is between groups that developed in situ and groups that arrived from elsewhere. The English are descended from a bunch of different sets of people, but as a people they developed in the country that came to be known as England.
In that sense the English are indigenous to England, not because their genes didn’t arrive from elsewhere (they did), but in the sense that they became a people in the land itself. Different people were grafted onto the English over time, but they became English in an ethnic sense by being grafted onto them, and not by simply co-existing with them while retaining their own identity.
Dieneke’s Anthropology Blog
The English were originally the people of the three allied Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, kindred folk who spoke the same, or a closely related language and who had the same culture and religious beliefs and practices.
The Danes, who arrived in England a few hundred years after the English, were genetically virtually the same Nordic people, their language being so similar that they were able fairly easily to understand one another. The main difference between the English and the newcomers was religious, the English having embraced Christianity while the Danes initially remained heathen.
The Normans were of largely Danish ancestry, but they were Danes who had benefited from their geopolitical situation, as the conquerors of a part of the Frankish domain, to improve their military technique and the efficiency of their government. Their language had also changed over time, becoming more like that of the people they had conquered and less like that of their own Danish ancestors.
One should also not forget the Celtic Britons and the even earlier inhabitants of Britain, whose genetic legacy remains to a greater or lesser degree within the people whom we should now describe as English.