In modern times, the Irish are known for building new homes in faraway lands as they’ve taken root in the U.S. and Australia. But analysis of the Irish genome hints that they’ve always been immigrants, ever since they migrated all the way from the Middle East to the Emerald Isle thousands of years ago.
In the history of the British Isles, there are two great transitions, BBC News explained. The first is the transition from a hunter-gather lifestyle to farming, and later, a transition from the use of stone to metal.
Historians haven’t been unable to agree on what sparked those changes: the adoption of new ways by the people already living in Ireland or the migration of new people who brought those new ways with them.
Genome analysis has determined that in both cases, migration was the spark.
Scientists came to this conclusion by analyzing the genome of four different people who lived in two eras of Irish history. The DNA of a woman farmer demonstrates one change, and three men who arrived in the Bronze Age represent the other.
As the Guardian explained, the DNA of every person tells two stories — an individual tale of identity and another that reveals millennia of ancestry. By looking at the human genome, scientists can tell the entire story of Homo sapiens. In this case, scientists using whole-genome analysis to “read” each of these ancient people’s characteristics and their history of migration and settlement.
The first ancient person studied was a farmer who lived 5,000 years ago near Belfast and was buried in Ballynahatty. Her genome revealed that she was more similar to modern people from Spain and Sardinia, and her ancestors moved to Ireland from the Middle East. And the Middle East is where agriculture was born, pointing to the first major transition in Irish history.
The ancestors of Ireland’s Stone Age farmers originated in the “Bible lands,” arriving on the shores of the Emerald Isle by way of the southern Mediterranean. They introduced cattle, cereals, and ceramics, as well as black hair and brown eyes. They looked like southern Europeans, the Belfast Telegraph noted.
The Irish genome underwent a second massive change during the Bronze Age. New blood from eastern Europe arrived, as evidenced by the DNA of three men who lived 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, and were laid to rest in County Antrim’s Rathlin Island.
A third of their ancestry came from the Pontic Steppe, which now includes Russia and Ukraine. These men are genetically similar to the modern Irish, Scottish, and Welsh.
The people of the Pontic steppe had one critical skill — they knew how to mine for copper and work with gold. They also brought with them the genetic variant for blue eyes, a common Irish Y-chromosome type, the genes for a blood disorder that is so common in Ireland today that it’s called Celtic disease, and the ability to tolerate milk into adulthood.
These people may have also introduced the language that eventually became Irish.
“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,” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin. “And this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”
Study of the Irish genome has shown scientists that the two changes in European prehistory — agriculture and metallurgy — arrived with new blood. Whoever lived in Ireland before were overwhelmed by these newcomers, and those newcomers then became the Irish we know today.
“These findings suggest the establishment of central attributes of the Irish genome 4,000 years ago,” researchers said.
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