Just in time for St. Paddy’s Day, scientists from Dublin and Belfast have evidence that stone age Irish settlers had genetic origins in the Middle East. Thank the Vikings for the DNA that gave rise to red hair and freckles, introduced when they invaded the island nation at the end of the eighth century. But dial back 6,000 years, and discover genes for dark eyes and raven tresses that trace to the Fertile Crescent.
The discovery came when scientists in Trinity College, Dublin put the bones of a female farmer buried 5,000 years ago in a tomb near Belfast through genome analysis. They also sequenced DNA from the remains of three men buried about 2,000 years later in County Antrim. They used a technique called whole-genome analysis to study characteristics of each person, as well as the wider story of ancestral migration and settlement as shown in their collective DNA.
Their findings conclude that the present Irish population built upon a mass migration of Stone Age farmers from the Fertile Crescent, the multi-cultural empire of Mesopotamia that stretched from the Nile River in Egypt to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern Iraq, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. According to a report in The Guardian, the geneticists confirm an archaeological theory that’s been formulating for decades: migrant communities did not compete with the original Irish. They became the Irish.
The ancestors of the prehistoric Irishmen hailed from the area around the contemporary Levant, where agriculture began. They likely migrated across the southern Mediterranean, arriving in Ireland with knowledge of farming, ceramics, use of grains and cereals, and cattle. They also brought the genes that permits milk digestion in older humans, and may even have brought the building blocks of the modern-day Irish language.
The Dublin team, collaborating with scientists from Queens University Belfast, assert that the two radical changes in European prehistory, namely advancements in metallurgy and agriculture, brought on more than a shift in culture and economics. It caused genetic changes as well as the native population of hunter gatherers was successively overwhelmed by new Middle Eastern arrivals. Their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that, in Ireland, new immigrants began to redefine the nation.
“It is clear that this project has demonstrated what a powerful tool ancient DNA analysis can provide in answering questions which have long perplexed academics regarding the origins of the Irish,” Eileen Murphy, osteoarchaeology lecturer at Queen’s in Belfast told The Guardian.
“There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin.
“And this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”
Photograph: Daniel Bradley, Trinity College Dublin