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.
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.
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.