New research sheds light on origins of ancient Picts

The origins of the Picts were local to the British Isles and not from large scale migration from exotic locations in the east, new research suggests.
A Pictish standing stone at RhynieA Pictish standing stone at Rhynie
A Pictish standing stone at Rhynie

The study is helping to shed new light on the origins of the Picts, who were first mentioned in the late 3rd century CE as resisting the Romans and went on to form a powerful kingdom that ruled over a large part of present-day north-east Scotland.

Bioarchaeologists have now conducted what is described as the first extensive analysis of Pictish genomes, revealing long-standing genetic continuity in some regions of the British Isles.

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Researchers said that in the medieval period, the Picts were thought to be immigrants from Thrace (north of the Aegean Sea), Scythia (eastern Europe), or isles north of Britain, but as they left few written sources of their own little is known of their origins or relations with other cultural groups living in Britain.

The study was carried out by an international team led by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the University of Aberdeen.

Dr Adeline Morez, visiting lecturer at LJMU’s School of Biological and Environmental Sciences and lead corresponding author of the study, said: “Our findings support the idea of regional continuity between the Late Iron Age and early medieval periods and indicate that the Picts were local to the British Isles in their origin, as their gene pool is drawn from the older Iron Age, and not from large-scale migration, from exotic locations far to the east.

“However, by comparing the samples between southern and northern Pictland we can also see that they were not one homogenous group and that there are some distinct differences, which point to patterns of migration and life-time mobility that require further study.”

The researchers used Identity-By-Descent (IBD) methods to compare two high-quality Pictish genomes sequenced from individuals excavated from Pictish-era cemeteries at Lundin Links in Fife (Southern Pictland) and Balintore in Easter Ross (Northern Pictland) to those of previously published ancient genomes as well as the modern population.

The analysis of mitochondrial genomes from Lundin Links also provided an insight into another theory about the Picts – that they practised a form of matriliny, with succession and perhaps inheritance going to a sister’s son rather than directly through the male line.

Researchers said that in a matrilocal system they would expect to find females staying in their birthplace after their marriage and throughout their life.

However at Lundin Links, diversity in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests this was not the case.

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Researchers said this finding challenges the older hypotheses that Pictish succession was passed along the mother’s side and raises further questions about our understanding of Pictish society and its organisation.

Co-author Prof Joel D Irish, of LJMU, added: “Among the peoples present during the first millennium CE in Britain, the Picts are one of the most mysterious.”

“Their distinctive cultural features such as Pictish symbols and the scarcity of literary and archaeological sources resulted in many diverse hypotheses about their origin, lifestyle and culture—to culminate in the so-called ‘Pictish problem’.”

Dr Linus Girdland Flink, University of Aberdeen and Visiting Research Fellow at LJMU, explained: “Our DNA results show that individuals from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria display a higher degree of Identity-By-Descent (IBD) sharing with the Pictish genomes, meaning they are genetically most similar among modern populations.”

The study is published in the open access journal Plos Genetics.

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