Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queen’s Univ. Belfast have sequenced the genomes of four ancient Irish humans, dating as far back as 5,200 years ago, and found evidence that the ancient people had origins in the Middle East and Pontic Steppe.
In Irish history, according to the researchers who published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the two most transformative periods were heralded by the arrival of agriculture (around 3750 BC) and metallurgy (around 2300 BC).
“The Neolithic package characterized by animal husbandry, cereal crops, ceramics, and timber houses reached the shores of Ireland some 5,000 years after its beginnings in the Near East,” the researchers wrote. “The second great wave of change starts with the appearance of copper mines, associated with Bell Beaker pottery, which are quickly followed by Bronze tool-making, weaponry, and gold-working, with distinct Food Vessel pottery succeeding from the earlier beakers.”
The four ancient Irish individuals studied included a Neolithic women from Ballynahatty (3343-3020 BC) and three early Bronze Age men form a cist burial on Rathlin Island (2026-1534 BC).
The female specimen “displays predominant ancestry from early farmers that ultimately originated in migrating agriculturists from the Near East,” a term used to describe the area occupied by modern day countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, among others.
According to the researchers, the early farmer would have had black hair and brown eyes, most likely resembling southern Europeans.
About a third of the Bronze Age genomes stem from sources in the Pontic Steppe. According to the researchers, this indicates that European upheaval during the Bronze Age was spread from southern Siberia to the western ocean.
The genetic change may be indicative of other cultural changes, including the introduction of the language ancestral to the Celtic tongues, according to researchers.
The specimens from the Bronze Age show the strongest similarities with modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh populations. Further, they showcase several important genetic variants common in Irish people today, including the coding for lactase persistence, blue eye color, and the C282Y mutation responsible for the genetic disorder haemochromatosis, defined by increased iron retention in the body.