Genetic analysis has uncovered the mysterious origin of the Picts, a people group that lived in many parts of northern Britain roughly 1,500 years ago.
Research reveals that the ethnic group, which many thought might have come from Eastern Europe, had a local origin similar to other British Celtic groups.
“They matched closer to the Iron Age British genome,” says Adeline Morez, a paleogeneticist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
The Picts have long been an enigmatic people, due in part to the fact that these ancient British people did not leave behind any of their own written accounts.
Who Were the Picts?
The Picts are mostly known for symbols they carved on monoliths that are still present throughout Scotland. Other than these markings, much of what we know about this group of people — who lived from roughly A.D. 300 to 900 in what is now Scotland — comes from outside sources who wrote about them.
The first appearance of the name, Picts, comes from Roman historians in the end of the third century A.D., mentioned in the context of 12 tribes living in Scotland.
“They were described by the Romans as warriors with blue tattoos,” Morez says, adding that the name resembles a Latin word similar to picture in English.
This correlation might refer to the images painted or tattooed on their bodies.
The Roman sources mainly deal with the Picts as an adversary, as described in accounts of their protective border, Hadrian's Wall. The Pict warriors attacked Hadrian’s Wall — built to keep them and other groups out — and remained adversaries.
Bede, an English historian, wrote in the eighth century that the Picts originally came from Scythia in Eurasia, and that they were matrilineal, passing succession and possibly inheritance along a female line.
While a number of scholars have cast doubt on Bede’s account of Scythian origin, the question of Pictish origin has never been fully resolved.
Morez, with colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University, decided to get at this question by sequencing the DNA of the remains of people buried in Pictish cemeteries. Their findings were published in an April study in PLOS Genetics.
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Reading DNA Of Ancient Scots
One cemetery called Lundin Links in Fife just north of Edinburgh contained 22 individuals, while other individuals were found near Balintore in the north of Scotland during construction of a sewer pipe.
In all, the researchers successfully extracted the DNA from seven individuals from Lunkin Links and one from Balintore dating from the 5th to the 7th centuries.
They managed to sequence high-quality genomes from two of these remains — one from Balintore and one from Lundin Links. They also examined the mitochondrial DNA of the seven remains from Lundin Links.
The team compared the results they found to previously published data on other genomes and found that these people were likely not outsiders from mainland Europe.
Rather, they had similar DNA to people that had lived in the British Islands before the fourth century A.D., when the first Roman accounts of the Picts appeared.
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The Culture of the Pictish People
While it’s difficult to tell what this means for our understanding of Pictish culture, a few scholars had theorized that the Pictish language might predate Celtic and other Indo-European languages, similar to the history of the Basque language.
But the consensus among most scholars is that these people spoke a Celtic language different from Gaelic, Welsh or others in the family.
Morez says that the similarities in genetics to other Celtic people living in the British Isles before the fourth century could add weight to the latter idea.
In any case, culture doesn’t always match genes. The study found that Picts from the Orkney Islands had a genetic identity distinct from other Picts on mainland Scotland.
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Were They a Matrilineal Society?
The remains in the Lundin Links cemetery didn’t seem to share much close ancestry, according to the mitochondrial DNA analysis. This is a little surprising given Bede’s statement about Picts being a matrilineal society, at least within the elite members.
Matrilineal societies are also often matrilocal, meaning the men typically move to marry women while the women usually stay where they were born.
Mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from the female parent, but none of the people analyzed were related. Morez says the lack of relatedness in these remains might show that the Picts weren’t matrilineal after all.
“Maybe this means that females were moving more,” Morez says.
It might also be that matrilineal norms were only practiced among high-status women, while the status of the people buried at Lundin Links is unknown. Or the lack of relatedness just might be due to the relatively small sample size of the remains.
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Morez’s team also compared the genes in the Pictish remains to modern British DNA.
They found that modern-day Scottish, Northern Irish, Northern English and Welsh people matched more closely to the Pict remains than to southern people of the British Islands.
Morez says that, according to historical sources, this is likely due to the Anglo-Saxon influx that came into southern England in large numbers starting in the fifth century A.D.
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