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Ireland's first farmers were far different from the Irish we know today

The DNA of two sets of remains have been analysed for the first time.

1451339133_Ballynahatty Reconstruction Reconstruction of Ballynahatty Neolithic skull by Elizabeth Black Source: Barrie Hartwell

DNA ANALYSIS OF an early Irish farmer who lived near Belfast more than 5,000 years ago suggests that the ancient Irish were of Middle Eastern descent.

A team of geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast have unraveled the DNA of ancient Irish remains for the first time, revealing the hallmarks of mass migration into the country.

The researchers say the origin of the intriguing genetics of the Irish – including traits such as lactose tolerance and an unusually common genetic mutation that can result in haemochromatosis (excessive iron retention) – are largely unknown.

The team analysed two sets of remains. The older was a woman who lived near Belfast around 5,200 years ago and was a farmer, and the second set were three men from the Bronze Age period more than 1,000 years later and who lived on Rathlin Island off the north coast.

Black hair, brown eyes

The farmer’s roots could be traced back to the Middle East, the birthplace of agriculture. She had black hair, brown eyes, and appeared similar to southern Europeans.

The three men were more similar to the Irish we know today. They had blue eyes, and cruically carried the gene responsible for haemochromatosis. The findings suggest that from this time the genome has remained largely similar.

This second group appear to have come from the Pontic Steppe, an area stretching from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, and up into Russia.

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Pontic_Caspian_climate The Pontic steppe, highlighted in yellow. Source: Wikimedia

The influx of these two groups into Europe has been previously established, but genetics professor in Trinity College Dublin, Dan Bradley, says this is now apparent in Ireland.

“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,” he said.

By 5,000 years ago rising sea levels would have separated Ireland and Great Britain, with the latter also likely cut off from mainland Europe as Doggerland (now the North Sea) flooded.

This degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.

The results were published in the international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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