Researchers Reveal How a Celtic Curse Fell Upon the Ancient Irish 4000 Years Ago and the Importance of Migration to Irish Prehistory
While researchers were analyzing the genes of prehistoric Irish ancestors they discovered that the beginning of a “Celtic Curse” (haemochromatosis) probably arose 4,000 years ago with a wave of migration from the Pontic Steppe to the East. This discovery also provides hard evidence for massive migrations that could have led to changes in Neolithic and Bronze Age lifestyles.
When geneticists at Trinity College in Dublin teamed up with archaeologists at Queen’s University of Belfast to study the origins of Ireland’s people and culture, they could only imagine the possible outcomes. The team successfully sequenced then compared the genomes of a woman farmer from 5,200 years ago (whose remains were found near Belfast) and three men who lived on Rathlin Island during the Bronze Age. When they analyzed these genes they discovered that a disease often called the “Celtic Curse” arose sometime between the two time periods and that it was related to a massive migration into the region.
The results of their analysis were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and show that the Ballynahatty Neolithic woman “possessed a genome of predominantly Near Eastern origin” and that “she had some hunter–gatherer ancestry but belonged to a population of large effective size, suggesting a substantial influx of early farmers to the island.”
Regarding her appearance, “the early farmer had black hair, brown eyes and more resembled southern Europeans.” [via Past Horizons]. On the other hand, the three Bronze Age men all had blue eye alleles. Additionally, they had the most common Irish Y chromosome type found today and one of the men was a carrier for the C282Y hemochromatosis mutation.
Reconstruction of the Ballynahatty Neolithic skull by Elizabeth Black. (Silicon Republic)
Individuals afflicted with the genetic disorder hemochromatosis suffer from excessive iron retention, also known as “iron overload,” which can “damage joints, organs, and eventually be fatal” if left untreated. The C282Y mutation is so common in people of Irish descent that it has been called a “Celtic Curse.”
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"You can't draw a line around Ireland and say hemochromatosis occurs only inside it," Daniel Bradley, a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin and an author of the report, remarked to NPR. But for unknown reasons the disease seems especially prevalent in Irish people. Bradley suggested that the ability to absorb higher quantities of iron could have been of evolutionary advantage for iron-poor diets, or a genetic tool for the change from meat to grain-based diets. One other hypothesis is that the disease may have protected the Irish ancestors from the negative effects of parasites on their system.
Explanation of how haemochromatosis is inherited. (Irish Haemochromatosis Association)
Lara Cassidy, a PhD Researcher in Genetics at Trinity College told the press that “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.”
Furthermore, the genetic differences evident between the Neolithic woman with genes from the East and the men (whose genes tell tales of substantial Steppe genetic heritage), demonstrate that there was a “profound migratory episode” between their lifetimes. The genetic changes due to these migrations also correlate with two major events in Europe. As the authors wrote:
“Modern Europe has been shaped by two episodes in prehistory, the advent of agriculture and later metallurgy. These innovations brought not only massive cultural change but also, in certain parts of the continent, a change in genetic structure. The first ancient whole genomes from Ireland, including two at high coverage, demonstrate that large-scale genetic shifts accompanied both transitions.”
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Although correlation does not equal causation, this aspect of the study has been of special interest to archaeologists, who have been divided on how much the “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 or whether these influences were derived from influxes of new people.”
Reconstruction of an ancient Hunter gatherer hut and a First Irish Farmer hut at Irish National Heritage Park, Wexford, Ireland. (David Hawgood/CC BY SA 2.0)
Bradley seems hopeful that the migrations suggested by the genetic alterations and cultural changes could be related:
“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, and this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”
Dr Eileen Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Osteoarchaeology at Queen’s University Belfast, believes that the recent study is putting scientists one step closer to solving some of the mysteries of Irish origins: “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,” she said.
Watercolor painting entitled ‘Irish as they stand accoutred being at the service of the late King Henry’ (c.1575) by Lucas de Heere. (Public Domain)
Sandra Chapman, writing for The News Letter, also sees the results of the study as a positive way to recognize that immigration has long been a part of humanity’s story and the perception of the Irish as “some kind of exclusive Celtic race is simply not true.” Her opening line: “We are who we think we are but we are not as we seem,” speaks volumes for human origins…
Featured Image: The skull of the Neolithic woman excavated in 1855 in Ballynahatty, Northern Ireland. Source: Daniel Bradley
By: Alicia McDermott