A man’s discovery of bones under his pub could forever change what we know about the Irish
10 Years ago, an Irish pub owner was clearing land for a driveway when his digging exposed an unusually large flat stone. The stone obscured a dark gap underneath. He grabbed a flashlight to peer in.
“I shot the torch in and saw the gentleman, well, his skull and bones,” Bertie Currie, the pub owner, said this week. The remains of three humans, in fact, were found behind McCuaig’s Bar in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. And though police were called, it was not, as it turned out, a crime scene.
Instead, what Currie had stumbled over was an ancient burial that, after a recent DNA analysis, challenges the traditional centuries-old account of Irish origins. From as far back as the 16th century, historians taught 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 B.C. and 500 B.C.
Yet the bones discovered behind McCuaig’s tell a different story of Irish origins, and it does not include the Celts.
“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford who has written books on the origins of the people of Ireland.
DNA research indicates that the three skeletons found behind McCuaig’s are the ancestors of the modern Irish and they predate the Celts and their purported arrival by 1,000 years or more. The genetic roots of today’s Irish, in other words, existed in Ireland before the Celts arrived.
“The most striking feature” of the bones, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh, and Scots. (By contrast, older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people, not the modern Irish.)
Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones discovered at McCuaig’s go back to about 2000 B.C. That makes them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic–relics unearthed from Celt homelands of continental Europe, most notably around Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
The senior author of the DNA research paper, Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, was reluctant to weigh in on the cultural implications, but he offered that the findings do challenge popular beliefs about Irish origins.
“The genomes of the contemporary people in Ireland are older–much older–than we previously thought,” he said.
Numerous digs, most notably in Austria and Switzerland, have traced the outlines of the Celts. The artifacts offer evidence going back as far as about 800 B.C. The ancient Greeks and Romans also left written accounts of the Celts, and probably knew them well–the Celts sacked Rome around 390 B.C. and attacked Delphi in Greece in 279 B.C.
It seemed plausible that this group that had invaded Rome had invaded Ireland as well, and in the standard view, it was this people that eventually made it to Ireland. For decades, however, archaeologists and other scholars have noted just how flimsy the evidence is for that standard account and how broad, nonetheless, is the application of the word.
In a 2001 book, Cunliffe, the Oxford scholar, argued on the basis of archaeological evidence that the flow of Celtic culture was opposite that of the traditional view–it flowed from the western edge of Europe, what he calls “the Atlantic zone”–into the rest of the continent. In many places of the Atlantic zone, he notes, people were buried in passages aligned with the solstices, a sign that they shared a unified belief system.
“From about 5,000 B.C. 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.”
If the new scholarship proves correct, exactly what to do with the word Celtic will probably be a matter of some dispute: Should it be applied to languages or cultures that, no matter how clearly defined, were largely uninfluenced by the historical Celts of continental Europe?
Complicating any answer are old ethnic antagonisms: The old notions of a distinct “Celtic race” or “Irish race” have been used not just for poetic tributes, but for scorn.
The new evidence from genetics, however, undermines notions of a separate Irish race, describing them instead as one sliver of the European spectrum. According to the genetic research, the Irish are at the extreme end of a genetic wave that washed across Europe, a wave of migrants that swept westward from above the Black Sea across Europe about 2,500 B.C.
That wave of migration had been documented in previous research led by David Reich at Harvard University, but it was unclear whether it had extended all the way to Ireland. The Y chromosome and other aspects of the DNA in the bones found behind McCuaig’s, however, link the Irish to that surge of population.