Man Discovers Bones Under His Pub That Could Change What We Know About The Irish Forever

By Peter Whoriskey

Man Discovers Bones Under His Pub That Could Change What We Know About The Irish Forever

A photo of McCuaig’s Bar on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland. Ancient bones were unearthed on the property in 2006. (Photo by Mairead Ni Rodaigh)

Ten years ago, an Irish pub owner was clearing land for a driveway when his digging exposed an unusually large flat stone. The stone obscured a dark gap underneath. He grabbed a flashlight to peer in.

“I shot the torch in and saw the gentleman, well, his skull and bones,” Bertie Currie, the pub owner, said this week.

The remains of three humans, in fact, were found behind McCuaig’s Bar in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. And though police were called, it was not, as it turned out, a crime scene.

Instead, what Currie had stumbled over was an ancient burial that, after a recent DNA analysis, challenges the traditional centuries-old account of Irish origins.

Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queens University Belfast have sequenced the first genomes from ancient Irish humans. (Trinity College Dublin)

From as far back as the 16th century, historians taught that the Irish are the descendants of the Celts, an Iron Age people who originated in the middle of Europe and invaded Ireland somewhere between 1000 B.C. and 500 B.C.

That story has inspired innumerable references linking the Irish with Celtic culture. The Nobel-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats titled a book “Celtic Twilight.” Irish songs are deemed “Celtic” music. Some nationalists embraced the Celtic distinction. And in Boston, arguably the most Irish city in the United States, the owners of the NBA franchise dress their players in green and call them the Celtics.

Yet the bones discovered behind McCuaig’s tell a different story of Irish origins, and it does not include the Celts.

“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford who has written books on the origins of the people of Ireland.

DNA research indicates that the three skeletons found behind McCuaig’s are the ancestors of the modern Irish and they predate the Celts and their purported arrival by 1,000 years or more. The genetic roots of today’s Irish, in other words, existed in Ireland before the Celts arrived.

“The most striking feature” of the bones, according to the research publishedin the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots. (By contrast, older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people, not the modern Irish.)

Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones discovered at McCuaig’s go back to about 2000 B.C. That makes them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic — relics unearthed from Celt homelands of continental Europe, most notably around Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

For a group of scholars who in recent years have alleged that the Celts, beginning from the middle of Europe, may never have reached Ireland, the arrival of the DNA evidence provides the biological certitude that the science has sometimes brought to criminal trials.

“With the genetic evidence, the old model is completely shot,” John Koch, a linguist at the Center for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.

The senior author of the DNA research paper, Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, was reluctant to weigh in on the cultural implications, but he offered that the findings do challenge popular beliefs about Irish origins.

“The genomes of the contemporary people in Ireland are older — much older — than we previously thought,” he said.

 

Source: washingtonpost.com




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