A Pictish stone in Scotland

Genetic analysis has revealed the mysterious origins of the Picts, a people group who lived in many parts of northern Britain around 1,500 years ago.

Research has revealed that the ethnic group, which many thought may have come from Eastern Europe, has a local origin similar to other British Celtic groups.

“They matched the Iron Age British genome more closely,” says Adeline Morez, a paleogeneticist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

The Picts have long been a mysterious people, partly because these ancient Britons left no written records of their own.

Who were the Picts?

The Picts are best known for symbols they carved on monoliths that are still present in Scotland. Apart from these markings, much of what we know about this group of people – who lived roughly from 300 to 900 AD. in present-day Scotland – comes from outside sources who wrote about them.

The first appearance of the name Picts comes from Roman historians in the late third century AD, mentioned in the context of 12 tribes living in Scotland.

“They were described by the Romans as warriors with blue tattoos,” Morez says, adding that the name resembles a Latin word similar to photo in English.

This correlation may refer to the images painted or tattooed on their bodies.

Pict Warriors

(Credit: Shutterstock/Dave Head)

Roman sources mainly deal with the Picts as an adversary, as described in accounts of their defensive frontier, Hadrian’s Wall. Pictish warriors attacked Hadrian’s Wall—built to protect them and other groups—and opponents remained.

Bede, an English historian, wrote in the eighth century that the Picts originally came from Scythia in Eurasia and that they were maternal, conveying continuity and possibly female inheritance.

Although a number of scholars have questioned Bede’s account of Scythian origins, the question of Pictish origins has never been fully resolved.

Morez, with colleagues at the University of Liverpool John Moores, decided to get at this question by sequencing the DNA of the remains of people buried in Pictish burial grounds. Their findings were published in April survey in PLOS Genetics.

Read more: Who were the ancient Scythians?

Relying on the DNA of ancient Scots

(Credit: Shutterstock/James Elkington)

A cemetery called Lundin Links in Fife, north of Edinburgh, contained 22 individuals, while other individuals were found near Balintore in northern Scotland during the construction of a sewer pipe.

In all, the researchers successfully extracted DNA from seven individuals from Lunkin Links and one from Balintore, dating from the 5th to 7th centuries.

They were able to sequence high-quality genomes from two of these remains – one from Balintore and one from Lundin Links. They also examined the mitochondrial DNA of the seven Lundin Links remains.

The team compared the results they found with previously published data on other genomes and found that these people were probably not outsiders from continental Europe.

Rather, they had similar DNA to the people who lived in the British Isles before the fourth century AD, when the first Roman records of the Picts appear.

Read more: Genetics reveal the movements of ancient Siberians

The culture of the Pictish people

(Credit: Shutterstock/Julie Beynon Burnett)

Although it is difficult to say what this means for our understanding of Pictish culture, several scholars have theorized that the Pictish language may predate Celtic and other Indo-European languages, similar to the history of the Basque language.

But the consensus among most scholars is that these people spoke a Celtic language other than Gaelic, Welsh, or others in the family.

Morez says similarities in genetics with other Celtic people living in the British Isles before the fourth century could add weight to the latter idea.

In any case, culture does not always correspond to genes. The study found that Orkney Picts have a genetic identity distinct from other Picts in mainland Scotland.

Read more: The ancient Celts: Rome’s Iron Age enemies who left behind more than weapons

Were they a matrilineal society?

According to mitochondrial DNA analysis, the remains at Lundin Links Cemetery do not appear to have very close ancestry. This is somewhat surprising given Bede’s statement that the Picts were a matrilineal society, at least within the elite members.

Matrilineal societies are also often matrilocal, meaning that men usually move to marry women, while women usually stay where they were born.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the female parent, but none of the people analyzed are related. Morez says that the lack of consanguinity in these remains may indicate that the Picts were not maternal after all.

“Maybe that means the females moved around more,” Morez says.

It may also be that maternal norms were only practiced among high-status women, while the status of the people buried at Lundin Links is unknown. Or the lack of connectivity may simply be due to the relatively small sample size of the remains.

Read more: From animals to human society: What we learn when women lead

Modern connections

Morez’s team also compared the genes in the Pictish remains to modern British DNA.

They found that today’s Scots, Northern Irish, Northern English and Welsh more closely match the remnants of the Picts than the southern inhabitants of the British Isles.

Morez says that according to historical sourcesthis is probably due to the Anglo-Saxon influx that came to southern England in large numbers beginning in the fifth century AD.

Read more: Who were the mysterious Scottish ‘bodies in the bog’?

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