Clan Carruthers

CLAN CARRUTHERS: The Picts, do they still walk amongst us. A DNA update

The Picts or Picti as the Romans named them meaning the ‘Painted Ones’ or Wærteras as they were also called, were a confederation of Celtic tribes who inhabited the lands north of the Forth-Clyde line. It is originally thought that they originally came from Scythia or Thrace.

Scythia was a part of Central Eurasia and was given its name by the ancient Greeks, while Thrace was a geographical and historical region in Southeast Europe. It was split among Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey.

However current research may strongly suggest otherwise. According to a piece led by Liverpool John Moore University and the University of Aberdeen further information on the Pictish DNA has come to light. In a paper published in Plos Genetics in April 27, 2023.

Introduction of Study Abstract

The abstract written by Morez, Britton and Noble et al, offers some insight into the study.

There are longstanding questions about the origins and ancestry of the Picts of early medieval Scotland (ca. 300–900 CE), prompted in part by exotic medieval origin myths, their enigmatic symbols and inscriptions, and the meagre textual evidence. The Picts, first mentioned in the late 3rdcentury CE resisted the Romans and went on to form a powerful kingdom that ruled over a large territory in northern Britain.

In the 9th and 10thcenturies Gaelic language, culture and identity became dominant, transforming the Pictish realm into Alba, the precursor to the medieval kingdom of Scotland. To date, no comprehensive analysis of Pictish genomes has been published, and questions about their biological relationships to other cultural groups living in Britain remain unanswered.

How the Scottish press reported the outcome findings.

In the Scotsman newspaper, published here in Scotland yesterday, they write

The study is helping to shed new light on the origins of the Picts, who were first mentioned in the late 3rd century CE/AD 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.

It would seem more likely than not to expect that neighbouring tribes would speak languages in which many words were cognates (having a common origin), as is the case with modern English and Dutch, for example. It would be difficult to launch a military operation unless plans and tactics could be discussed in days when there was little or no education in other languages.

Unfortunately, we have only some Ogham script carved into stones to tell us about Pictish and it is enigmatic, at best. Even so, a similarity to Cumbric – and the associated genetic ties between the tribes – would seem to be a strong likelihood.

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 (in Fife) 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.

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.”

The reserchers also stressed pulished in historyfirst that there was variability as, in one of their analyses, both Picts clustered most closely with living Welsh people but one was closer than the other to today’s Scots, English and Northern Irish. This individual, buried at Balintore in the Highlands, also had significant shared ancestry with people in early medieval England, implying possible recent gene-flow. 

“That’s an important finding,” said Flink. “By sequencing the two genomes, we can demonstrate heterogeneity in Pictland. There were lots of movements and people probably migrated a lot through their lifetime. So even though the Picts emerged as a kind of cultural entity, that does not necessarily reflect a biological homogeneity underpinning that.”

Significantly, the research does not support an exotic origin for the Picts. The 8th-century Northumbrian historian Bede claimed their ancestors came from Scythia in eastern Europe and other medieval traditions said they were from Thrace or islands north of Britain. Some modern theories have also suggested the Picts or their language were Germanic, Basque or Illyrian. 

The study authors write: “Overall, our data supports the current archaeological consensus arguing for regional continuity between the Late Iron Age and early medieval periods, but likely with complex patterns of migration, lifetime mobility and admixture.”

Nevertheless, there is an inadvertent grain of truth in Bede’s tale, as the study shows that the Picts — like all other historical-era Europeans — had some remote ancestry from incomers from the Pontic-Caspian steppe. 

Given that the Pictish heartlands were in what is now eastern Scotland — with the Scots of Gaelic Dál Riata on the western seaboard — it is striking that the Pictish genomes have closer affinities with today’s inhabitants of western Scotland. The authors suggest that one explanation could be later medieval migration into eastern Scotland, both from Britain south of the Forth and continental Europe.

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

In summary, genetic migration overtime further emphasises the links between one human and the other, but not all humans can claim to be from the proud and ancient Scottish Border name of Carruthers. A name we should all be proud to have.

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