Human history is punctuated by periods of rapid cultural change. Although archeologists have developed a range of models to describe cultural transitions, in most real examples we do not know whether the processes involved the movement of people or the movement of culture only. With a series of relatively well defined cultural transitions, the British Isles present an ideal opportunity to assess the demographic context of cultural change. Important transitions after the first Paleolithic settlements include the Neolithic, the development of Iron Age cultures, and various historical invasions from continental Europe. Here we show that patterns of Y-chromosome variation indicate that the Neolithic and Iron Age transitions in the British Isles occurred without large-scale male movements. The more recent invasions from Scandinavia, on the other hand, appear to have left a significant paternal genetic legacy. In contrast, patterns of mtDNA and X-chromosome variation indicate that one or more of these pre-Anglo-Saxon cultural revolutions had a major effect on the maternal genetic heritage of the British Isles.