A team of geneticists and archaeologists have, for the first time, sequenced the first ancient human genomes from Ireland. The information buried within is now answering essential questions about the origins of the Irish people as well as their culture.
The scientists from Trinity College, Dublin, and Queen’s University, Belfast, turned back the pages of Ireland’s early history by sequencing the genomes of a woman who had lived near Belfast around 5,200 years ago.
Watch Trinity College, Dublin, report on their findings:
Three men from a later period, around 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, were also sequenced. The ground-breaking results were published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The bones of the woman, who was a farmer, were unearthed from a tomb in Ballynahatty — which is near Belfast — and the remains of three men were buried on Rathlin Island in County Antrim.
According to Trinity College, Dublin:
“Ireland has intriguing genetics. It lies at the edge of many European genetic gradients with world maxima for the variants that code for lactose tolerance, the western European Y chromosome type, and several important genetic diseases including one of excessive iron retention, called haemochromatosis.
“However, the origins of this heritage are unknown. The only way to discover our genetic past is to sequence genomes directly from ancient people, by embarking on a type of genetic time travel.
“Migration has been a hot topic in archaeology. Opinion has been divided on whether the great transitions in the British Isles, from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to one based on agriculture, and later from stone to metal use, were due to local adoption of new ways, or whether these influences were derived from influxes of new people.”
The study now shows the unmistakable evidence for massive migration; with the woman having a majority of her ancestry originating from the Middle East, and the men having about a third of their ancestry coming from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe.
The professor of Population Genetics at Trinity College, Dublin, Dan Bradley, who led the study, said:
“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, and this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”
“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,” said Dr. Eileen Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology at Queen’s University, Belfast.
With the sequencing of the genomes it is now known that the woman had black hair and brown eyes, which resembles southern Europeans. The genetic variants in the men shared the Irish Y chromosome type; blue eye alleles, and the more important variant for the genetic disease, haemochromatosis, according to Trinity College, Dublin.
“The latter C282Y mutation is so frequent in people of Irish descent that it is sometimes referred to as a Celtic disease. This discovery therefore marks the first identification of an important disease variant in prehistory,” the college added.
Ph.D. researcher in genetics at Trinity College, Dublin, Lara Cassidy, said: “Genetic affinity is strongest between the Bronze Age genomes and modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, suggesting establishment of central attributes of the insular Celtic genome some 4,000 years ago.”