Recently, I saw a post in the Cineál Eoghain Facebook group which talked of a promising new series to be released this month by the Irish public service television channel, TG4. The first episode, which was just published only days ago, is titled "DNA Caillte," meaning "the Lost DNA."
I fascinatedly watched as the program's host, Manchán Magan, takes the viewer on a cram-packed 50-minute journey showing how the last 10 years of scientific—particularly genetic—research has revealed incredible insights that change the way we think about the earliest inhabitants of ancient Ireland. As you continue reading, I will share some of these exciting discoveries and finish with how they relate to our own ancient past as descendants of the Ó Dochartaighs family.
Mr. Magan begins this segment with a cruise across the North Channel to picturesque Rathlin Island, just off the north coast of County Antrim. Here he meets local ferry-owner, Mary O'Driscoll, and together they trekked into the rolling hills to explore a Neolithic "axe factory:" a small quarry cut into a stony outcrop where early dwellers gathered stones which they made into axes. The porcellanite was idea for making this type of tool, as they took the stones to a nearby beach and used the sand to polish them into sharp, rounded, smooth axes. One might think of tiny Rathlin—with its 140 present-day inhabitants—as being on the furthest reaches of culture. However, in that period it was a center of culture with far-reaching trade, as we find some of these Rathlin axes in excavations as far as France in continental Europe. Evidence tells us these Neolithic Rathlin axe-makers were here a thousand years before the Bronze Age.
Today, our DNA and the ancient DNA found in prehistoric grave sites are giving us answers about where we came from and even what our ancestors looked like. In another ancient site, in 2006, archaeologists from Queens University Belfast, excavated an undisturbed cist burial, which is a small coffin-like box. In this Bronze Age site they found both human remains and a pottery vessel, evidence of a more advanced civilization. Underneath the flat stone lid of this burial lay a 40 to 60 year old man who lived somewhere around 2000-1800 BC—about 4 millennia ago. The bones of the 5' 1" male showed signs of strenuous physical activity telling of the hard life he lived surviving in that age.
What is truly mind-blowing is the story his DNA contained. His remains were preserved with enough quality to obtain a full genome sequence of his DNA revealing that this early Rathlin man from the cost of Northern Ireland was descended from a wave of people who migrated across Europe from the Pontic Steppe. While scholars often think of the Irish as descendants of the Celts, who arrived here around 500 BC, we now know the origins of the Irish people are not that simple. The Pontic Steppe region corresponds roughly with the area of Ukraine, southern Russia, and nearby countries beginning on the shores of the Black Sea and continuing inland northward and eastward above the Caucasus Mountains toward the Caspian Sea!
As he continues, among many other people, Manchán Magan takes us to visit Dr. Lara Cassidy, a post-doctoral researcher in the Trinity College Dublin Department of Genetics. Dr. Cassidy explains that now only can DNA tell us where the Ireland's early inhabitants came from and their migration path, but it can also help us visualize what they actually looked like.
Cassidy showed us how ancient DNA is only preserved well in the body's most dense bones such as the petrous portion of the temporal bone located at the base of the skull. We watch her take a small sample of the rock-hard bone using a grinder and place the bone shavings in a solution which releases DNA from the bone, allowing them to sequence the entire ancient human genome and compare it to a large database of other ancient genetics collected from sites all over Europe.
Dr. Cassidy follows Magan, as they visit and explore the even earlier Mount Sandel Mesolithic campsite in County Derry on the banks of the River Bann. At this site, which to-date is the earliest known evidence of human settlement in Ireland, we see the residence of a small group of hunter-gatherers who lived in huts and ate primarily fish, fowl, shellfish. Forensic techniques have allowed researchers like Dr. Cassidy to predict the color of these ancient peoples' hair, eyes, and skin to build a profile of what they would've looked like. Surprisingly we find them to be a people with dark skin and hair with blue eyes—a unique combination that doesn't really exist in today's population.
Moving from the earlier Mesolithic site, Mount Sandel, the program leads us to a more recent Neolithic site, the impressive Poulnabrone megalithic portal tomb which is dated to around 3800 BC. Here, Ann Lynch meets the host to describe how she directed an archaeological excavation on this site in the 1980s, which uncovered the remains of over thirty ancient Irish buried here. This dolmen in County Clare, like many more scattered across Ireland, tell an extremely different story from the earlier hunter-gatherers like at those at Mount Sandel. The megalithic portal tombs paint the picture of a sophisticated society which brought agriculture to Ireland. They built these massive tombs to honor their dead. Among the bones she found there, Ms. Lynch tells us they found evidence of fighting and power struggles among them in the remains of some skeletons, including an arrowhead which was lodged inside one bone. Modern DNA analysis, however, even gives us more insight, including what they ate and even diseases they had. One of the children buried at the Poulnabrone burial chamber had Down's syndrome.
Later on, we explore the ancient henge monument, the Giant's Ring, at Ballynahatty near Belfast—a great ceremonial center in the Neolithic period. Dr. Rowan McLaughlin, of Queen's University Belfast tells us about some of the many tools they use to evaluate an ancient site such as this one: carbon dating places it within a specific period of time, modern DNA sequencing reveals relationships between the inhabitants and in comparison to the larger group of cultures across Europe and the Mediterranean, while charcoal samples reveal what type of trees they used for building and firewood. We find that they carried with them a complex agricultural civilization which grew cereal grains; raised cattle, sheep, goats, pig, and deer; and made tools and pottery which were used to preserve their food.
It was in at this site that the remains of Ballynahatty woman and an underground tomb was discovered by a farmer plowing in 1855. Recent genetic analysis by TCD reveals this woman's ancestry was from the Mediterranean, particularly the fertile crescent area, where farming started and, furthermore, that she actually looked more Mediterranean than like a modern Irishwoman. This group of peoples began spreading across Europe around 4500 BC and finally made it to Ireland a few centuries later.
With the arrival of the Neolithic farmers, the Irish were more settled. It is in this era that you see the formation of some of the most incredible Neolithic monuments in all Europe. In County Meath sits the massive Newgrange burial mound and the nearby Knowth mound (part of the Brú na Bóinne complex) both of which are ancient passage graves older than Stonehenge. These two sites, alone, with their incredible carvings, megalithic stones, and massive earthen work, hold more than half of all Europe's Neolithic rock art—the secrets of which are still yet to be deciphered.
Oriented so that sunlight penetrates into the central chamber deep within Newgrange on winter solstice, this incredible site tells of a people with advanced knowledge of engineering and astronomy who had a belief in life after death—as the solstice marks the beginning of longer days which brings springtime and a rebirth of nature.
Professor Michael O'Kelly of University College, Cork excavated and restored Newgrange between 1962 and 1975. Among the many human bones he found, which were stored in boxes scattered among massive archival storage of museums and universities, Dr. Lara Cassidy finally located some petrous temporal bones from which she was able to extract ancient DNA. In her research, which was published in a paper in the June edition of Nature Magazine, she shows how genetics revealed the parents of one person buried in the central chamber of Newgrange were either siblings or that the parents shared a parent-child relationship with each other. The fact that someone born of such a taboo relationship was buried in one of the most sacred places in all Ireland tell us they were of very high rank and that inbreeding was done to preserve the royal bloodline of some kind of god-like king.
The program continues by explaining how this was a practice observed by Egyptian kings: Egyptian pharaohs were often seen as gods and that marriages with siblings were often seen as bringing good luck, as it preserved the royal blood of the dynasty. While genetics actually reveal this individual was descended from ancient peoples who lived in the Tigris and Euphrates region of ancient Mesopotamia, we learn how they may have shared some of the same beliefs as ancient Egyptians.
DNA Caillte finishes by explaining how the huge waves of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Neolithic peoples completely wiped away the ability to detect remaining genetics from the few, earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, so that it is not traceable in the DNA of the modern Irish population. While this large group of early Irish farmers dominated Ireland for a long time, these Neolithic peoples began to disappear around 2300 BC, a millennium after they constructed Newgrange. Perhaps they died from disease, climate changes, or crop failures. It was at this point—from the Bronze Age on up to those called the Celts, about 500 BC— that influxes of people arriving from the continent significantly diluted the genetic heritage of the Neolithic farming peoples in Ireland. While there still are small traces of these Neolithic farmers and megalithic grave-builders in the Irish genetic makeup, modern Irish DNA most closely resembles that of peoples who arrived later.
Personally, with an interest in the history and ancestry of the Ó Dochartaighs, I find interesting where, earlier within the episode, Mr. Magan takes us to the Royal Irish Academy where we meet Ruairí Ó hUiginn, Senior Professor School of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Ó hUiginn explains the importance of how the Christian culture of the middle ages brought an understanding of world history at large. In light of their understanding of Biblical origins they began to meet the oral history of the Irish with questions like "Where did the Irish come from?" and it is the Lebor Gabála Érenn or Book of Invasions that recounts this mixed-source account detailing a complex history of many successive waves of migration to Ireland across the millennia. One such redaction of the Book of Invasions is contained in part of the Great Book of Lecan compiled in County Sligo during the late 1300s or early 1400s by Irish scribes, poets, and historians.
Many scholars have scoffed at these historic pseudo-history accounts as being complete rubbish, but as time progresses and science begins weighing in with modern archaeological and genetic evidence, there is somewhat of an astounding parallel of certain core statements which exist between the two. The Book of Invasions says Ireland's early populations originated in the middle east and Mediterranean, according to the program, "it was very close to being right."
For instance, the region which the Neolithic Rathlin man is genetically connected to (the Pontic Steppe) is one that was historically known as Scythia, among the many other cultures which occupied the area throughout time. Incidentally, it is actually Scythia that is credited in the Book of Invasions as being the home of Goídel Glas, ancestor to the Gaelic Irish peoples.
Continuing from the legend, Goídel Glas, ancestor of the legendary royal lineage of Milesian Irish kings—from which later genealogies claim the Ó Dochartaighs sprang—Goídel was reported as the son of Nel. Nel (pronounced Niall or Neill) was the son of the Scythian prince Fénius Farsaid, who, according to the same tradition, was amongst those who built the Tower of Babel along the Tigris and Euphrates region of ancient Mesopotamia—exactly where Dr. Cassidy traced the DNA of the individual buried in the central mound of the royal Newgrange tomb.
Furthermore, Dr. Cassidy's involvement in the genetic research of the Newgrange bones, published in the Journal of Nature, revealed what appears to have been a pharaoh-like king in Ireland and a culture that may have shared some of the same beliefs as the ancient Egyptians. Intriguingly, the Book of Invasions and other early accounts of Irish origins such as Nennius' Historia Brittonum written as early as the 11th-century AD, tell of Scota and Scotia daughters of two Egyptian pharaohs one who married Nel and another who married Goídel Glas—which gives an Egyptian connection to the Irish invaders of mythology.
Are all these seeming parallels between medieval Irish pseudo-history and modern genetic evidence just coincidence or could there be some small remains of truth shrouded deep within the early Irish mythology? Who knows—but it's very fascinating and definitely worth continuing research on. Regardless of that, the small remains of these Neolithic Irish farmers, and the "lost DNA" of the earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, tells the story of our deep and very complex ancestral past as descendants of the Irish Ó Dochartaigh family. If you enjoyed this, you can view the episode of DNA Caillte for yourself on the TG4 website (https://www.tg4.ie/en/player/home/?pid=6186667760001), but you may want to turn on the English subtitles as the program is primarily in Irish.
Until next time, Ár nDúthchas!
Will Dougherty III
Sources and Resources:
DNA Caillte on the TG4 website: https://www.tg4.ie/en/player/home/?pid=6186667760001
Queen’s University Belfast, Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology: Data Structure Report No. 49 (The excavation of a Bronze Age cist Burial in Church Bay, Rathlin Island, Co.Antrim) http://www.peterspioneers.com/rathlinqub.pdf
Cassidy, L.M., Maoldúin, R.Ó., Kador, T. et al. A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society. Nature 582, 384–388 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2378-6