The Complicated Genetic Lineage of Prehistoric Ireland

A study published about two days ago in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents the genomes of four prehistoric Irish individuals: a Neolithic woman (3,343 – 3,020 BC) from a tomb in Ballynahatty near Belfast, and three Early Bronze Age men (2,026 – 1,534 BC) from a cist burial in Rathlin Island. The results have interesting implications of the peopling of the British Isles.

The Irish woman’s remains. (Daniel Bradley, Trinity College Dublin)

The DNA of the Neolithic woman resembled ancestors mostly Middle Eastern in origin… With an understanding she resembled a darker southern European woman than a red-haired Irish lass. In contrast, thee genetics of the Bronze age men, approx. 1,000 years later, resembled a population full of blue eyed Eastern Europeans.

The variants circulating in the three male individuals from Rathlin Island had the most common Irish Y chromosome type, with blue eye alleles and the most important variant for hemochromatosis. The latter C282Y mutation is so frequent in people of Irish descent that it is sometimes referred to as a Celtic disease.

I am surprised see how different the Neolithic woman, who was found in  1855 and lived over 5,000 years ago, was from the three male skeletons analyzed. With just millennia separating them, their genomes shouldn’t have looked so strikingly different – which suggests that some major migration really must have occurred. Based on the men’s DNA, the researchers suspect that their ancestors may have come to Ireland from the Pontic Steppe – a region Eastern Europe that sits over the Black Sea, including what’s now the Ukraine… For now, this probable migration is still quite mysterious.

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