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Irish Genome Sequenced, Revealing Early Celtic Origins

Dec 29, 2015 01:34 PM EST
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A team of researchers has sequenced the first ancient human genomes from Ireland, shedding light on the origins of Celtic people and their culture.

For their study, geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queen's University Belfast studied the genomes of a 5,200-year-old female farmer from the Neolithic period and three 4,000-year-old males from the Bronze Age. Their analysis revealed early Irish farmers were quite similar to southern Europeans, according to a news release.

"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," Dan Bradley, study leader and professor of Population Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, explained in the release. "And this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues."

It is often debated whether the great transitions in the British Isles, from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one based on agriculture and later from stone to metal use, were due to local adoption of new ways by indigenous people or from the introduction of new people. These ancient Irish genomes confirm the later, suggesting there was a massive migration.

"It is clear that this project has demonstrated what a powerful tool ancient DNA analysis can provide in answering questions which have long perplexed academics regarding the origins of the Irish," Dr. Eileen Murphy, one of the study researchers and Senior Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology at Queen's University Belfast, said in Trinity's release.

While much of the early female farmer's ancestry originated in the Middle East – where agriculture was invented – the Bronze Age genomes show a different pattern. A third of their ancestry came from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe, which is a region now spread across Russia and Ukraine, researchers say.

"Genetic affinity is strongest between the Bronze Age genomes and modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh, suggesting establishment of central attributes of the insular Celtic genome some 4,000 years ago," Lara Cassidy, Ph.D. researcher in genetics at Trinity, added.

Compared to the early female farmer who resembled southern Europeans with black hair and brown eyes, the three Bronze Age men from Rathlin Island had blue eyes and the common Irish haemochromatosis mutation, which is a disease known to cause excessive iron retention. This C282Y mutation is so widely common among people of Irish descent that it is sometimes referred to as a Celtic disease. This, researchers say, is an important discovery in and of itself because it marks the first identification of an important disease variant in prehistory.

Their findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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