Among the most enigmatic of ancient cultures, the Picts are known to have established the earliest kingdoms in eastern Scotland yet left behind agonizingly little evidence relating to their culture or origins. However, after analyzing the genomes of ancient Pictish skeletons, researchers have finally revealed where these mysterious people came from while also demonstrating that many modern residents of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the north of England have Pictish ancestry.
After first appearing in Roman texts in the third century CE, the Picts went on to form a powerful kingdom that ruled over much of northern Britain for about 600 years. With only a few strange symbolic inscriptions and hardly any Pictish settlements or cemeteries to work with, though, historians and archaeologists have struggled to piece together the story of this once mighty group of people.
This lack of solid evidence has fueled speculation about the culture’s origins, with some Medieval sources hinting at a far-flung Pictish homeland in Eastern Europe or the icy isles to the north of Britain. To solve the riddle, the authors of a new study analyzed the genomes of two Pictish skeletons from central and northern Scotland that were dated to between the fifth and seventh centuries CE.
Cross-referencing their findings with over 8,300 modern and ancient genomes, the researchers discovered that the Picts didn’t arrive from abroad after all, but were descended from local Iron Age populations. “We demonstrate genetic affinities between the Pictish genomes and Iron Age people who lived in Britain, which supports current archaeological theories of a local origin,” write the study authors.
What’s more, the team found genetic similarities between the ancient Picts and present-day populations in various regions of the United Kingdom.
“The two Picts studied here showed a greater affinity (by haplotype sharing) with present-day populations from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria compared to the populations from southern England, which is important for understanding how present-day diversity formed in the UK,” explained study author Adeline Morez in a statement. “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.”
Intriguingly, people in western Scotland appear to have higher levels of Pictish ancestry than those in the east, where the main Pictish political and cultural centers were located. “This was unexpected and may be caused by several reasons,” says Morez. “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.”
Continuing their research, the study authors analyzed the DNA of seven skeletons from a single Pictish cemetery, and were shocked to find that these individuals were unrelated via the maternal line. This contradicts long-standing assumptions about the Picts being a matrilineal culture, suggesting instead that women may have married out of their local communities.
“Overall, our study provides novel insights into the genetic affinities and population structure of the Picts and direct relationships between ancient and present-day groups of the UK,” conclude the researchers.
The study is published in the journal PLOS Genetics.