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4 January 2016
Scientists sequence first ancient Irish human genomes

Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queen's University Belfast have sequenced the first genomes from ancient Irish humans - an early farmer woman who lived near Belfast some 5,200 years ago, and those of three men from around 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age.
     Ireland has intriguing genetics. It lies at the edge of many European genetic gradients, however the origins of this heritage are unknown.
     Opinion has been divided on 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, or derived from influxes of new people.
     These ancient Irish genomes each show unequivocal evidence for massive migration. The early farmer has a majority ancestry originating ultimately in the Middle East, where agriculture was invented. The Bronze Age genomes are different again, with about a third of their ancestry coming from ancient sources in the Pontic Steppe, stretching from north of the Black Sea east to the Caspian Sea.
     Study leader Dan Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics in Trinity College Dublin, says: "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."
     Whereas the early farmer had black hair, brown eyes and more resembled southern Europeans, the genetic variants circulating in the three Bronze Age men had the most common Irish Y chromosome type, blue eye alleles, and the most important variant for a genetic disease so frequent in people of Irish descent that it is sometimes referred to as a Celtic disease. This discovery therefore marks the first identification of an important disease variant in prehistory.
     Trinity College genetics researcher Lara Cassidy adds 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."

Edited from Popular Archaeology (28 December 2015)

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