A study of two new Pictish genomes shows Picts descended from Iron Age British populations

The study provides novel insights into the genetic affinities and population structure of the Picts.

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Picts are people living in Scotland during the early medieval period. They formed the first documented kingdoms of eastern Scotland- inhabiting early medieval Scotland from about 300-900 AD.

Picts have been a mystery subject for a long time due to the lack of historical and archaeological evidence and their enigmatic symbol tradition inscribed on stone.

Adeline Morez of Liverpool John Moores University and Linus Girdland-Flink of the University of Aberdeen- sampled Pictish burials to extract genomes to explore how the Picts are related to other cultural groups in Britain. 

Dr. Morez told PLOS, “It has never been done, and many historical-based hypotheses stated that they were biologically diverse from their neighbors, with possible ties from the Eurasian steppes. Once we realized they were genetically very similar to their contemporaries living in the UK, we decided to push the limit in terms of analytical resolution using imputation of genotypes and analyses based on the autosomal haplotype information.”

Two individuals from central and northern Scotland, dating from the fifth to the seventh century AD, had their DNA sequenced by scientists. The haplotype sharing between these two individuals and modern groups from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria was higher than it was for populations from southern England, which is significant for understanding how the UK’s current diversity developed.

The high-quality genomes they had produced were then compared to more than 8,300 ancient and contemporary genomes that had already been published. The study reveals that people living in Orkney and mainland Scotland, who most likely belonged to the same cultural group, were slightly different. This difference was probably caused by the restricted gene flow between the two areas and the tiny population in Orkney, which is known to hasten genetic divergence.

According to the research, Picts originated from regional Iron Age groups that inhabited Britain before the advent of mainland Europeans. The researchers also discovered genetic resemblances between modern-day residents of western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria and the Picts. The Picts have been associated with exotic beginnings dating back to medieval times, even to the time of the Picts themselves, such as Thrace (north of the Aegean Sea), Scythia (eastern Europe), or isles north of Britain. However, new study points to considerably less dramatic origins for the Picts.

Further analysis of DNA sequenced from seven individuals interred in a Pictish cemetery showed that the individuals did not share a common ancestor on their mother’s side. This finding suggests that females may have married outside their social group and runs counter to older speculation, such as that mentioned by the great English scholar Bede, that the Picts were matrilineal, that they had had a society based on kinship through the mother’s lineage.

Dr. Morez said, “I was surprised to find that the two Pictish genomes from eastern and northern Scotland show a slightly higher but noticeable haplotype sharing with present-day people living in western Scotland, rather than those from the East where Pictish culture is believed to thrive.”

“This was unexpected and may be caused by several reasons; either we are detecting a population movement from the west of Scotland toward the East but which did not leave a long-lasting genetic signature, or later population movements in the East replaced some of the Pictish ancestry. We still don’t know which one is correct.”

The new findings support current archaeological theories that Picts descended from Iron Age people in Britain. The study also provides novel insights into the genetic relationships that existed amongst Pictish individuals buried in cemeteries together and between ancient Picts and present-day groups in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Morez said, “I hope the fascination for the Iron Age and medieval period in the UK will increase and lead to more genomes being discovered and analyzed, to better understand the genetic structure across Scotland. Thanks to these genomes, those already published and the many more yet to come, the UK will soon become the first country where we understand in detail how genetic diversity has formed.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Morez A, Britton K, Noble G, Gu¨nther T, Go¨therstro¨m A, Rodrı´guez-Varela R, et al. (2023). Imputed genomes and haplotype-based analyses of the Picts of early medieval Scotland reveal fine-scale relatedness between the Iron Age, early medieval, and the modern people of the UK. PLoS Genet.19(4): e1010360 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1010360

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