The origins of the Picts were local to the British Isles and not from large-scale migrations from exotic locales to the east, new research suggests.
The study is helping to shed new light on the origins of the Picts, first mentioned in the late 3rd century AD as resisting the Romans and who formed a powerful kingdom ruling much of what is now north-east Scotland.
Bioarchaeologists have now conducted what is being described as the first in-depth analysis of Pictish genomes, revealing long-standing genetic continuity in certain regions of the British Isles.
The researchers said that in the medieval period the Picts were thought to have immigrated from Thrace (north of the Aegean Sea), Scythia (Eastern Europe), or the Isles north of Britain, but since they left few written sources of their own, little is known of their origins or relationships to other cultural groups living in Britain.
The study was conducted by an international team led by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the University of Aberdeen.
Dr Adeline Morez, visiting lecturer in the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at LJMU and corresponding lead author of the study, said: ‘Our results support the idea of regional continuity between the Late Iron Age and the Early medieval times and indicate that the Picts were local to the British Isles in their origin, as their gene pool is drawn from the Old Iron Age, and not large-scale migrations, from exotic locations far to the east.
“However, by comparing the samples between the Southern and Northern Picts, we can also see that they were not a homogeneous group and that there are some distinct differences, which indicate life-course patterns of migration and mobility that require further study.”
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 (South Pictizia) and Balintore in Easter Ross (Pictizia northern) with those of previously published ancient genomes as well as the modern population.
Lundin Links’ analysis of mitochondrial genomes has also provided insight into another Pictish theory: that they practiced a form of matrilinism, with succession and possibly inheritance going to a sister’s child rather than directly through the male line.
The researchers said that in a matrilocal system they would expect to find females who would remain in their place of birth after marriage and for life.
However at Lundin Links, the diversity in maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests that this was not the case.
The researchers said this finding challenges older assumptions that Pictish succession was passed on through the mother’s side and raises further questions about our understanding of Pictish society and its organization.
Co-author Prof Joel D Irish, from LJMU, added: ‘Of the peoples present during the first millennium AD in Britain, the Picts are one of the most mysterious.’
“Their distinctive cultural features such as Pictish symbols and the paucity of literary and archaeological sources have led to many different hypotheses about their origin, lifestyle and culture, culminating in the so-called ‘Pitti problem’.”
Dr. Linus Girdland Flink, University of Aberdeen and Visiting Research Fellow at LJMU, explained: “Our DNA results show that individuals from the west of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria show a higher degree of sharing of Identity-By-Descent (IBD) with Pictish genomes, meaning they are genetically more similar among modern populations.
The study is published in the open access journal Plos Genetics.