New study reveals British people still have Pictish genomes

Picts originated from regional Iron Age groups that inhabited Britain prior to the advent of mainland Europeans.
Nergis Firtina
Historical depiction.
Historical depiction.


The Picts of Scotland, who have long been captivated and attributed exotic origins, were actually descended from local Iron Age civilization and were genetically closest to those living today in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria.

Published in PLOS Genetics, the Picts, who lived in early medieval Scotland from around 300 to 900 AD, created the first recognized kingdoms of eastern Scotland. Still, they have frequently remained a mystery due to a lack of historical and archaeological data, as well as their enigmatic symbol tradition etched on stone.

Morez and Girdland-Flink sampled Pictish tombs to extract genomes to investigate how the Picts are linked to other cultural groups in Britain. They sequenced DNA from two individuals dating from the fifth to seventh centuries AD from central and northern Scotland. They compared the high-quality genomes that resulted in over 8,300 previously published ancient and modern genomes, as said in the release.

New study reveals British people still have Pictish genomes
Detail of a stone carved Pictish monument.

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 were thought to have exotic roots dating back to medieval times, even to the time of the Picts, such as originating from Thrace, Scythiathe, or the north of Britain. However, the current study shows considerably less dramatic origins.

DNA samples from 7 people

Additional DNA sequencing from seven people buried in a Pictish cemetery revealed that none of the individuals shared a common ancestor on their mother's side. This discovery contradicts earlier theories, such as those made by the great English historian Bede, that the Picts were matrilineal and had a society built on kinship through the mother's lineage. Instead, it shows that women may have married outside of their social group.

The latest discoveries lend credence to archeological hypotheses that Picts were derived from Britons who lived in the Iron Age. The study also sheds new light on the genetic connections among Pictish people interred in the same cemetery and between ancient and modern Pict tribes in the United Kingdom.

Study abstract:

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 3rd century 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 10th centuries 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. Here we present two high-quality Pictish genomes (2.4 and 16.5X coverage) from central and northern Scotland dated from the 5th-7th century which we impute and co-analyse with >8,300 previously published ancient and modern genomes. Using allele frequency and haplotype-based approaches, we can firmly place the genomes within the Iron Age gene pool in Britain and demonstrate regional biological affinity. We also demonstrate the presence of population structure within Pictish groups, with Orcadian Picts being genetically distinct from their mainland contemporaries. When investigating Identity-By-Descent (IBD) with present-day genomes, we observe broad affinities between the mainland Pictish genomes and the present-day people living in western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria, but less with the rest of England, the Orkney islands and eastern Scotland—where the political centres of Pictland were located. The pre-Viking Age Orcadian Picts evidence a high degree of IBD sharing across modern Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Orkney islands, demonstrating substantial genetic continuity in Orkney for the last ~2,000 years. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA diversity at the Pictish cemetery of Lundin Links (n = 7) reveals absence of direct common female ancestors, with implications for broader social organisation. 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.

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