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Scientists plan DNA search for the origins of the Irish people

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Roots research to discover for the first time just who the Irish are and where they came from over thousands of years has been proposed as a millennium project by a group of scientists from north and south of the border.

Using DNA sampling from around the country the project, which is being coordinated by the Royal Irish Academy, would analyze the genetics of the modern Irish and compare the results with samples from arch’ological skeletons and existing European DNA databases.

Humans are first thought to have arrived in Ireland about 9,000 years ago, after the last ice age. There are a lot of assumptions about where they came from but the new research would provide the first scientific proof of the origin of our ancestors.

The Academy has applied for a £100,000 grant from the government’s millennium fund and hopes to raise matching funds of at least as much again.

The scientists involved are from Trinity College, UCD, UCC, Queen’s University in Belfast and the National Museum.

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"Ireland is a very recently populated island," said Dr. Dan Bradley, lecturer in genetics at Trinity College, Dublin. "The lifespan of humans in the country is very short compared to where humans started in Africa, over 200,000 years ago, and in other parts of Europe, primarily southern Europe which wasn’t depopulated by the ice age.

"What is proposed will help ask questions about relationships and origins at a much more detailed level. The hope would be that it would clarify aspects of Irish pre-history that are still unknown.

"Obviously, a group of people from the west of Ireland look slightly different from a group from East Anglia, but what genetics can do is open up a vast reservoir variation that is beneath the surface and can’t be seen visibly."

He said the project would involve taking samples from more than 1,000 people and comparing them with DNA databases in other countries.

Professor Michael Baillie of the pal’oecology department in Queen’s University, Belfast, said that he had a particular "catastrophic" interest in the project as an arch’ologist.

"My feeling is that the arch’ological evidence doesn’t preclude the island having been wiped clean a few times by disease or famine or whatever and being completely repopulated in pre-history," he said.

"Whereas the conventional wisdom is that basically the same population was always here and a few ideas flowed back and forward.

"I would be interested to see what genetic evidence is available from ancient skeletons in trying to elaborate on the story of the Irish. Obviously, you don’t get the answers you expect from research like this.

"Modern humans appear in the records very clearly from about 40,000 years ago, but when you actually do the genetics of the common ancestor you come out with this creature called African Eve whose dating estimates are 200,000 to 250,000 years ago.

"Early bone is hard to find and there is relatively little skeletal material until you get to the early Christian period."

Bradley said DNA testing on very old bones can be done. His laboratory had already got DNA samples from 1,000-year-old Viking cattle bones found on the Wood Quay site in Dublin.

"We have also typed some extinct cattle from Britain which went back quite a few thousand years — I think the oldest was 12,000 years. The technology is there if we get the bones."

The problem with finding human bones as far back to the Neolithic period is that many burials at that time involved cremation.

More modern genetic influences would obviously include invasions, plantations and settlements by groups like the Celts, Vikings, Normans and English, but Bradley said it was possible the island would have become populated to a reasonable density for the first time in the Neolithic period at about 4000 BC.

He said that once the original founder population had been established, the genetic impact of later incoming groups may not be as great as their obvious cultural impact.

The project would aim to answer questions about where the original "mother" population came from in prehistory migrations. "There are resonances of France and Spain in very early great stone monuments here, but stones don’t speak," Bradley said.

"With a project like this you have to be very careful not to talk about any idea of purity. Who knows, we all probably have a touch of planter, Norman, Norseman, Celt and Neolithic in us."

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