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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Ancient Bones, DNA Analysis, and the Irish

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Thursday, March 17, 2016/Categories: natural history, environment, adventure

On St. Patrick's Day all things Irish are celebrated by people everywhere who claim roots from Ireland's green shores. The Irish are rightly famous for their major contributions to mythology, artistic design, literature, and especially for their infectious music that now incorporates all types of stringed, beaten, and drone-like instruments. However, it has always been a puzzle as to the ancestrial origins of the island's people. New research is now providing evidence to help answer this question of: "where did the Irish come from?" and it is a surprise. The new information may require that some textbooks will need to be rewritten.

Genetic analysis conducted at Trinity College in Dublin, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that DNA of modern Irish was already present in their ancient population much earlier than when the Celts were first known in Ireland. The study's lead author, Dan Bradley, used DNA extracted from ancient bones, recently discovered in a tomb under an Irish pub, to compare with DNA samples from contemporary Europeans to determine genetic ancestry. The bone's DNA came from the Bronze Age individuals, perhaps 1000 years before the Celts were known to be living in what is now Ireland.

According to the Trinity College announcement, the researchers sequenced the DNA of a woman who lived near Belfast some 5,200 years ago and from three men who lived there approximately 4,000 years ago. They used whole genome sequencing to establish this dating. All three men carried the most common type of Y-chromosome now found in Ireland and which can only by inherited from fathers. The men also carried a genetic disorder was previously detected in people from the steppes in southern Russia. The genes code for the blood disorder known as haemochromatosis, a heriditary disease so common in Ireland today that is often called the Celtic disease. The new genome analysis indicates the establishment of this genetic attribute in Ireland 4,000 years ago by migrating southern peoples.

The DNA analysis was aided archelogical evidence from Iron Age artifacts of known Celtic origin collected in their original central European homelands of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. The artifacts were radiocarbon dated to compare with similar Celtic objects unearthed from Ireland. The datings show that the Celts invaded Ireland between 500-1000 BCE nearly 1000 years after the ancient Belfast bones and their DNA were buried. In discussing his research Dr. Bradley 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.” 

Additional background on the new Irish findings is here:

The new research demonstrated what a powerful a tool of DNA analysis can be in answering human ancestry and migration questions and the entire PNAS article can be read here

The Trinity College findings may require a bit of revision in understanding Ireland's past but it doesn't take anything away from a green beer to honor the Irish on St. Patrick's Day or attending the annual Celtic Connections festival that brings together musicians and artists from around the world to celebrate their roots in ever expanding creative collaborations.



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