Geneticists have managed to shed some light on the origins of early Celtic populations by studying DNA from thousands of years ago.
The scientists from Trinity College Dublin have been working with archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast to sequence human genomes – complete sets of DNA – from early Irish farmers. Their research has revealed that they were similar to people originating from southern Europe but then the Bronze Age brought major changes to genetic patterns in Ireland. During this period, immigrants from eastern Europe settled in the area.
The study, published in the journal PNAS, looked at the genomes of a Neolithic woman who lived in Ireland 5,200 years ago and compared them to three Bronze Age men from 4,000 years ago.
It has previously been unknown whether the switch from hunting to agriculture in the British Isles was due to changes in the population or simply the adoption of new methods by the indigenous people.
But now this research suggests there was a wave of newcomers who brought with them new techniques and a different way of life.
Genetic testing of the Neolithic woman, whose remains were found in Ballynahatty, near Belfast, showed that her DNA bore most resemblance with people living in Spain and Sardinia today. And her ancestors originally arrived in Europe from the Middle East where farming first began.
Ancestors hailed from Russia and Ukraine
The three men were found in Rathlin Island and their DNA showed they had ancestors who originated from what is now Russia and Ukraine. They also bore more genetic similarities with people living in Ireland, Scotland and Wales now than the woman from the Neolithic period.
Dan Bradley, a geneticist from Trinity College Dublin, said: “There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea. We now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island.”
The genetic disease haemochromatosis, a condition in which the body absorbs too much iron, is common in Ireland. This mutation was found in one of the men from Rathlin Island, showing that this disease had entered the Irish gene pool by the Bronze Age.
DNA testing can reveal answers to all sorts of questions you might have about your own biological origins. As well as establishing paternity or other family relationships, you can also find out more about your heritage with an ancestry DNA test.