Majority Of Irish DNA May Have Originated In The Middle East And Eastern Europe

A temporary or seasonal camp for a hunter-gatherer community in Ireland during the Mesolithic Age
A temporary or seasonal camp for a hunter-gatherer community in Ireland during the Mesolithic Age (Íomhá: ©Northern Ireland Environment Agency & Philip Armstrong)

I’m sure some of you may have seen the recent flurry of articles in the national and international press highlighting the publication of a new genetics’ study, “Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome“, by academics from Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast. The examination of the DNA profiles of four bodies dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods in Ireland has led to some dramatic headlines:

“Irish DNA originated in Middle East and eastern Europe. Genome analysis shows mass migration of Stone Age farmers from Fertile Crescent and Bronze Age settlers from eastern Europe was foundation of Celtic population [The Guardian]”

“Ireland’s early population came from as far away as the Middle East, new research shows. The new findings re-write the early history of Ireland’s people, and shows that the country now famous for immigration may have begun that way too [The Independent]”

“Irish have roots in the Middle East and Black Sea, scientists discover. Ireland’s saints and scholars were descended from farmers and bronze metalworkers from the Middle East and modern-day Ukraine, scientists have found. [The Irish Independent]”

“Ancient Irish genome reveals a massive migration from the east [The Washington Post]”

“Irish DNA has Middle Eastern and Russian roots, gene study shows [Russia Today]”

Of course all this talk of ancient migrations to our island nation has some commentators reaching for their obligatory references to the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann “Book of the Takings of Ireland”, or as it is more commonly known in the English language, the Book of Invasions. This Medieval Irish work recounts a series of mythical migrations to Ireland, beginning with the Ceasaraigh, the followers of Ceasair daughter of Naoi (“Noah”) before the biblical flood, and ending with the country’s conquest by the Clann Mhíle, the “Family of Míl”: i.e. the Irish. Unfortunately while the Leabhar Gabhála makes for entertaining mythology it also makes for poor history. Though some genuine memories of population movements may exist within its many tales, they are so far buried underneath interwoven layers of accumulated native, classical and ecclesiastical lore that it can serve as no reliable chronicle to Ireland’s distant past. Whoever the Neolithic inhabitants of the country may have been they certainly weren’t the Tuatha Dé Danann, though one might well suppose that it was in fact Bronze Age immigrants who gave the island its name: *Φīwerjon-, later *Īweriū, then Ériu and finally modern Éire. All of which mean, appropriately enough, the “Abundant, Fertile Land”.

The study itself is far more complex, and the conclusions more nuanced, than the headline writers would allow.

“The Neolithic and Bronze Age transitions were profound cultural shifts catalyzed in parts of Europe by migrations, first of early farmers from the Near East and then Bronze Age herders from the Pontic Steppe. However, a decades-long, unresolved controversy is whether population change or cultural adoption occurred at the Atlantic edge, within the British Isles. We address this issue by using the first whole genome data from prehistoric Irish individuals. A Neolithic woman (3343–3020 cal BC) from a megalithic burial (10.3× coverage) possessed a genome of predominantly Near Eastern origin. She had some hunter–gatherer ancestry but belonged to a population of large effective size, suggesting a substantial influx of early farmers to the island. Three Bronze Age individuals from Rathlin Island (2026–1534 cal BC), including one high coverage (10.5×) genome, showed substantial Steppe genetic heritage indicating that the European population upheavals of the third millennium manifested all of the way from southern Siberia to the western ocean. This turnover invites the possibility of accompanying introduction of Indo-European, perhaps early Celtic, language. Irish Bronze Age haplotypic similarity is strongest within modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh populations, and several important genetic variants that today show maximal or very high frequencies in Ireland appear at this horizon. These include those coding for lactase persistence, blue eye color, Y chromosome R1b haplotypes, and the hemochromatosis C282Y allele; to our knowledge, the first detection of a known Mendelian disease variant in prehistory. These findings together suggest the establishment of central attributes of the Irish genome 4,000 y ago.”

Putting aside the issue of Irish academics using an anachronistic and frankly revanchist term like the “British Isles” (seriously?) what is being suggested here, based upon the study of the four burials, is three broad swathes of prehistoric immigration to Ireland. First came the post-Ice Age hunter-gatherers; small, tightly-knit Mesolithic family groups following the retreating glaciers, and expanding flora and fauna, northward across western Europe, somewhere between 8000-7000 BCE. These semi-nomadic adventurers, probably originating in what is now the coastal regions of southern France, Spain and Portugal, and notable for their likely dark or swarthy skin with light-coloured eyes, were to form the base population of the country for the following few millennia and indeed to the present day. Though we can deduce that they lived in seasonal or temporary camps along the coastline and river courses, with circular, possibly “wig-wam” like shelters of timber, reed and hide, what languages they spoke or traditions they practised, or if they were even shared, are beyond recovery.

The permanent settlement of a farming community in Ireland during the Neolithic Age
The permanent settlement of a farming community in Ireland during the Neolithic Age (Íomhá: ©Northern Ireland Environment Agency & Philip Armstrong)

Next came the Neolithic settlers, extended family units of farmers, fishers, hunters and some artisans, navigating well-travelled routes across the Mediterranean and south-western Europe from their ancestral homelands in present-day Turkey and its neighbouring territories, spreading north up through Iberia, western France, Britain and into Ireland around 4000 BCE. They brought with them certain identifying artefacts and features which archaeologists have labelled the Corded Ware, Battle Axe or Single Grave cultures. Unlike the majority of the Mesolithic peoples the inhabitants of the Neolithic made permanent homes for themselves and their livestock, rectangular houses and barns with heavy wooden walls and thatched roofs, frequently clustered together in small communities. In time these peoples established the great Megalithic or burial-mound civilization which came to dominate the Continent’s western seaboard for the following one thousand years. The body of the woman found in the burial near Belfast represents this population, one where a majority of people sported dark eyes and hair, coupled with light skin. Though she has some Mesolithic markers in her DNA her ancestors were predominantly incomers, in genetic terms at least, who may have entirely displaced or subsumed the earlier and much scarcer hunter-gatherer peoples. Like those who proceeded them the language or languages of the Neolithic communities are unknown, though linguists are more inclined to offer theories than in the case of the Mesolithic peoples. However there is more to follow on that subject below.

Finally the three male burials from Rathlin Island, just off the north-east coast, represent a Bronze Age influx from 2500 BCE onwards, blue-eyed, dark-skinned workers of copper, tin and bronze, whose ancestors travelled overland from the extreme edge of south-eastern Europe, probably from what is now the modern Ukraine and southern Russia. The Irish branch of this migration almost certainly arrived on the island via the already ancient networks of travel and trade established by the agricultural and maritime communities of the Neolithic’s Atlantic littoral, moving up from southern Spain via France as far north as Ireland and Scotland, rather than from some central European transit point. This would associate them with the Bell-Beaker or Beaker culture identified by modern archaeology, which likely originated in the Iberian peninsula, where it was closely linked to the development and spread of metallurgy. The research paper suggests that these groups were Indo-Europeans, that is the speakers of the ancestral Indo-European language, and that their immediate descendants in western Europe gave birth to the prehistoric Celtic dialects that eventually developed into contemporary Irish, Scottish, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Indeed other studies have theorised that the proto-Celtic tongue, as we know it, may well have emerged in Iberia first. In any case they survived principally through agriculture and exploiting the natural resources of land and sea. This highlights the anomaly that, aside from metal-working, round rather than rectangular buildings, the gradual development of “hill forts” and other defensive structures, and certain changes in burial practices, relatively little changed in the transition from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age. Less revolution, more evolution.

An overview of the settlement landscape of Ireland during the latter part of the Bronze Age
An overview of the settlement landscape of Ireland during the latter part of the Bronze Age (Íomhá: ©Northern Ireland Environment Agency & Philip Armstrong)

Of course, the above is a simplified outline of the study, and other related matters. Though historians talk of “Ages”, these descriptions are a form of academic shorthand. There were in fact centuries of overlap between the different periods outlined above, and in different regions, and what western European archaeology reveals above all else is a general continuity of population, of settlement and even of culture, since the early Neolithic. Which somewhat contradicts the more dramatic interpretations made in relation to the possible evidence of mass migrations in the prehistoric era.

One should of course note that these claims stem from an extremely small sample of ancient remains and genomes. It is a lot to hang some admittedly plausible extrapolations on. A few scholars would point to alternative theories, such as the Anatolian hypothesis of Colin Renfrew and others which argues that the Indo-European languages were in fact part of the cultural package introduced by Neolithic farmers from Turkey or Asia Minor, via a jumping off-point in the Balkans. This would tie-in with the belief that the known, historic Celtic peoples of Europe were largely the product of in-situ development from the Neolithic and Megalithic peoples who were their immediate ancestors. In this scenario the arrival of Bronze Age technologies and immigrants represented an addition or development rather than a displacement of settled, already Indo-European-speaking populations.

However that is a discussion for another day.

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10 comments

  1. Besides the interesting echo (or even source) of the Partholonian myth of that group from the eastern Mediterranean, the Scythian origin is attested to in the myth of the Nemedians who followed.

    1. Yes, though they are largely myths. I know its tempting to read modern historical discoveries into the Leabhar Gabhála and other early texts but more often than not the similarities are coincidental. While some dim, far off memory of links with Spain may have found its way into the LGÉ I doubt much else did, beyond elements of the Fir Bolg or Clann Mhíle stories. 99% of it is mythical, Celtic and Christian, with some Greek and Roman thrown in for good measure 😉

  2. there were certainly people living on Ireland about 9000 years ago. The problem with the above research is firstly the sample sample size. it simply isn’t possible to say much about the general population of the island on the basis of a few skulls. More importantly, groups that cremated their dead, or left their dead in the open (like some native north american tribes did) will never be identified using this type of research.

    1. I agree, Martin. The DNA deductions would need to come from a much larger and more geographically spread sample, to be taken at face value. The problem is, so few remains are available for analysis, for the reasons you point out.

  3. Great summary.

    The Ballynahatty, Co Down drift & diversity are an interesting oddity, there wasn’t a bottleneck so there wasn’t a small migration of neolithic farmers. What that means is really left dangling in this study and will need more genomes sequenced to help answer. I suspect there’s a story lurking behind that thread.

    Couple of thoughts:
    1. This is a limited dataset of 1 neolithic & 3 bronze age genomes. The conclusions in the paper are supported by this data and now we want additional genomes sequenced to confirm, contradict or muddle.
    2. These are both in Ulster which was difficult to get to from the south of Ireland. The Ballynahatty genome indicates beaker culture through the med. How did she and her ancestors get to Down?

  4. Great article! I’m with those who believe the limited data set is not necessarily a valid data set. It seems it is like taking a sampling of four bodies from Fairview now and concluding the people of Ireland originated in Nigeria and Poland. I am sure there was a good deal of wandering in the neolithic and bronze ages, for reasons as simple as taking to the hunt and following animal populations, being displaced by tribes and peoples larger in group size or technologically more advanced, etc… In defense of the study, most of these DNA conclusions seem to be drawn on very limited samples, but then this is definitely not my expertise. To me it appears as if
    even the conclusion that the group examined by this study originated in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is somewhat questionable, as it seems that not enough bodies from that time have been examined to present true evidence of origination. Just because a few bodies tested in the Middle East have a similar genome to the bodies found in Ireland, and there is a larger number of prospective (untested samples), at this time that share similar societal and cultural artifacts, I believe not enough have been actually found and tested to be able to absolutely positively ascertain origin, as in this example. The bodies in this study could have technically originated in Ireland and wandered to the Middle East and Eastern Europe instead of the other way around (although probability strongly favours the latter). Sometimes the same people remained in the same area for a considerable amount of time, making a DNA analysis very biased when extrapolated across a much larger area. Especially since the testing is usually limited to finds with very restricted geographical boundaries. Then there is the possibility that if the people from Eastern Europe populated the Middle East or vice versa, the bodies found could have been part of the same migration originating from the same area in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. It is not uncommon to have significantly varying genomes in an apparently homogeneous society. At this point, I think anything is still in the realm of possibility.

    1. The genomes analysed were a mixture of markers from a couple of different groups, meaning they are at least several generations removed from the immigration event. The percentage of haplotypes from a group can (with many caveats) be a quick & dirty estimate of the relative numbers of the various populations. The genetic drift and degree of variability in these population specific sequences also give an indication of the size of the immigrant population.

      The debate has long been between Celtic invaders and paleolithic hunter-gathers from 13kya. Bradley’s lab’s previous work was the gold standard evidence for 90% of current Irish inhabitants being descended from the HGs. This was done on small set of haplotypes, not the current shotgun sequencing of the entire genome. The subsequent 10 years of research has added a lot more to the tapestry that is the genetic history of the Irish. We are eating the elephant one tiny bit at a time. Take a look at the titles in the reference list to get an idea of all the other information out there relevant to this discussion that we don’t have easy or any access to.

      The Ballynahatty genome is pre-hypothetical Celtic invasion and is evidence of significant migration of neolithic farmers from beaker culture (Med->Spain->Ireland). The Rathlin island genomes are demonstrating similarities to contemporary European genomes implying similar levels of migration of similar peoples from Europe to Rathlin.

      Whatever theory we have it has to explain that every place in Ireland has a name that means something in Irish. We have New Yorks, not Chicagos. When farming came to Ireland, was it more or less benevolent than the Europeans in the Americas or the natives experience any better than those in the Amazon today? With this paper we look like an amalgam of native HGs with a significant contribution of Neolithic Med farmers (and some Scandinavian passage grave). The degrees of that mixture, how it happened and the origin of the Irish language are where the excitement is.

  5. Nice article Seamus – thank you.
    Also agree with “ar an sliabh” as per his comments above.
    If we go back far enough, it is my understanding that the entire planet is all African in origin…….

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