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She lived in south Belfast 5,200 years ago... now this neolithic woman is providing new clues about the origins of human settlement in Ireland

By John von Radowitz

Published 29/12/2015

A reconstruction of what the woman would have looked like based on the dimensions of the skull
A reconstruction of what the woman would have looked like based on the dimensions of the skull
The skull of a farming woman who lived in the townland of Ballynahatty on the southern edge of what is now Belfast over 5,000 years ago
The Giant’s Ring, near where the skull was found

The ancestors of people in Co Antrim may have arrived there from as far away as the Middle East and Eurasia, a genetic study has found.

Scientists made the discovery after mapping the DNA of a farmer woman who lived near the Giant's Ring in what is now south Belfast 5,200 years ago, and three men from Rathlin Island dating back to the Bronze Age around 4,000 years ago.

All the genetic sequences showed clear evidence of "massive migration", said the researchers.

The woman had ancestry that could be tracked to the Middle East, where agriculture was invented. About a third of the men's ancestry led to the Pontic Steppe, a huge region of flat grassland extending from the Danube estuary to the Ural mountains.

It was here that the horse was first domesticated, and chariots developed.

In much more recent times, the Irish have become famous for putting down new roots around the world in countries such as the US and Australia. The new research suggests that they themselves started out as immigrants.

Professor Dan Bradley, from Trinity College Dublin, who led the study published in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 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.

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

The early farmer had black hair, brown eyes, and resembled southern Europeans, said the researchers.

But the three Bronze Age men from Rathlin Island had genetic variants for blue eyes and the most common Irish Y chromosome type.

They also had a genetic mutation associated with an excess iron disorder, haemochromatosis, so frequent in people of Irish descent that it is sometimes referred to as a Celtic disease.

The genomes of the woman farmer did not show these - highlighting that the genetic make up of Irish people had changed dramatically in just 1,000 years.

Co-author Dr Lara Cassidy, also from Trinity College, said: "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."

Dr Eileen Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology at Queen's University, Belfast said: "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."

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