Ten years ago, the skeletal remains of three humans were found behind McCuaig’s Pub in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The pub owner had stumbled upon an ancient burial while clearing land for a driveway. His discovery would challenge the traditional centuries-old account of Irish origins.
As far back as the 16th century, it was believed that the Irish are the descendants of the Celts, an Iron Age people who originated in the middle of Europe and invaded Ireland somewhere between 1000 BC and 500 BC.
However, the bones discovered behind McCuaig’s Pub tell a different story.
“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford.
"DNA research indicates that the three skeletons found behind McCuaig's are the ancestors of the modern Irish and... https://t.co/fiYdpoeJUa— Dan Kline (@afdtk) March 18, 2016
DNA analysis indicates that the remains found behind the pub belonged to ancestors of the modern Irish and predate the Celts and their purported arrival by a thousand years or more, reports The Star.
In other words, the genetic roots of today’s Irish people, existed in Ireland long before the Celts arrival.
According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, the “most striking feature” of the bones is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots.
Older bones discovered in Ireland, however, are closer to those of Mediterranean people than to the modern Irish.
Radiocarbon dating indicates that the skeletons discovered at McCuaig’s go back to about 2000 BC, making them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic.
“With the genetic evidence, the old model is completely shot,” said John Koch, a linguist at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.
Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, who is the senior author of the DNA research paper, was reluctant to weigh in on the cultural implications of the finding, but did say that the discovery challenges popular beliefs about Irish origins.
“The genomes of the contemporary people in Ireland are older — much older — than we previously thought,” he said.
So where does this leave the belief that the Irish and other people of the region are “Celtic”?
This may depend on how you define “Celtic,” reports The Star.
The first argument revolves around the Irish language, which, like Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, linguists have labeled as Celtic. This group of languages seems to have emerged after a similar evolution from Indo-European and are indisputably related. It is unclear, however, whether the term “Celtic” is an appropriate name for the languages.
The traditional view holds that the Celtic languages originated with the Celts on continental Europe and spread to Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
However, a growing number of scholars have started to argue that the first Celtic languages were not spoken by the Celts in the middle of Europe but by ancient people on Europe’s westernmost extremities, possibly in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or the other locales on the western edges of the British Isles.
In 2008, Koch, the linguist at the University of Wales, suggested that “Celtic” languages were not imports to the region but instead were developed somewhere in the British Isles or the Iberian peninsula, and then spread eastward into continental Europe.
He began questioning the traditional beliefs after studying inscriptions on artifacts from southern Portugal, which strongly resembled the languages known as Celtic. The inscriptions dated as far back as 700 BC., which placed Celtic languages far from the Celt homelands in the middle of Europe at a very early date.
“What it shows is that the language that became Irish was already out there — before 700 BC and before the Iron Age,” Koch said. “ It just didn’t fit with the traditional theory of Celtic spreading west to Britain and Iberia.”
The second argument about the definition of “Celtic” arises from archaeology.
In recent years, some archaeologists have challenged the long held story that the Celts who invaded Rome around 390 BC, also invaded Ireland. They propose that the culture was not imported but rather exported, originating on the western edge of Europe earlier than previously thought and spreading into the continent.
Cunliffe, the Oxford scholar, made this argument in a 2001 book, saying that on the basis of archaeological evidence the flow of Celtic culture originated from the western edge of Europe, from what he calls “the Atlantic zone,” into the rest of the continent.
“From about 5,000 BC onwards, complicated ideas of status, art, cosmology were being disseminated along the Atlantic seaways,” Cunliffe said, and that culture then spread eastward.
“If we’re right, the roots of what is known as ‘Celtic’ culture go way way back in time,” Cunliffe said. “And the genetic evidence is going to be an absolute game-changer.”
The new genetic evidence undermines notions of a separate Irish race, and suggest the Irish are at the extreme end of a genetic wave that washed across Europe, a wave of migrants that swept eastward from above the Black Sea across Europe about 2,500 BC.
The DNA in the bones found behind McCuaig’s links the Irish to that surge of population.
“The way to think about genetic variation in Europe is that it is more of a gradient than it is of sharp boundaries,” said Bradley, the DNA researcher.
“Sometimes, cultural features like language and natural borders can coincide with genetics, but most times not. Genetics is fuzzy, and it doesn’t follow political and cultural borders.”
The experts warn that the new findings may disappoint many who want a simple answer to the question Irish origins.
“The public will always want a place on the map and for someone to point and say, ‘This where the Irish are from,’” said J.P. Mallory, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of “The Origins of the Irish.”
“But there’s going to be no way to do that. These groups were frequently traveling east-west across Europe, from one place to another. Everyone is a mix.”