Forget the Venerable Bede’s tale of seaborne Scythian invaders. The Picts were descended from indigenous Iron Age people of Britain and their closest relatives today include the Welsh, western Scots, Northern Irish and Northumbrians, according to a pioneering study.
The term “Picts” — probably from the Latin pictae for “painted” — was used broadly by late Roman authors to describe hostile un-Romanised people in northern Britain. It also describes early medieval people north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus in what is now Scotland who shared a common language and distinctive cultural artefacts such as symbol stones. Some self-identified as Picts.
Nevertheless, the nature of Pictish identity, the origin of the Picts and their relationships with other groups have all been contested. Palaeogeneticist Dr Linus Girdland Flink, of the University of Aberdeen, said: “Among the peoples present during the first millennium in Britain, the Picts are one of the most enigmatic. There is the so-called ‘Pictish Problem’, which stems from the fact that the Picts did not have their own written records and there is a dearth of archaeology in terms of excavated settlements.
“There are early medieval histories of the Picts from the Irish annals and the Anglo-Saxon Bede but they’re all outsiders’ records which we now interpret as being mythical.”
Seeking new insights through DNA, Flink and an international team of colleagues analysed two complete genomes of individuals from two Pictish-era cemeteries, at Lundin Links in Fife and Balintore in Easter Ross. The remains date from the 5th to 7th centuries and provide the first whole genomes from historic Pictland.
For their study, published in Plos Genetics, the researchers compared the genomes to more than 8,300 previously published ancient and modern genomes. Their analysis suggests the Picts were descended from populations who lived across Britain during the Iron Age. Additionally, the researchers found genetic similarities between Picts and present-day people in Wales, western Scotland, Northern Ireland and Northumbria.
They stressed that there was variability as, in one of their analyses, both Picts clustered most closely with living Welsh people but one was closer than the other to today’s Scots, English and Northern Irish. This individual, buried at Balintore in the Highlands, also had significant shared ancestry with people in early medieval England, implying possible recent gene-flow.
“That’s an important finding,” said Flink. “By sequencing the two genomes, we can demonstrate heterogeneity in Pictland. There were lots of movements and people probably migrated a lot through their lifetime. So even though the Picts emerged as a kind of cultural entity, that does not necessarily reflect a biological homogeneity underpinning that.”
Significantly, the research does not support an exotic origin for the Picts. The 8th-century Northumbrian historian Bede claimed their ancestors came from Scythia in eastern Europe and other medieval traditions said they were from Thrace or islands north of Britain. Some modern theories have also suggested the Picts or their language were Germanic, Basque or Illyrian.
The study authors write: “Overall, our data supports the current archaeological consensus arguing for regional continuity between the Late Iron Age and early medieval periods, but likely with complex patterns of migration, lifetime mobility and admixture.”
Nevertheless, there is an inadvertent grain of truth in Bede’s tale, as the study shows that the Picts — like all other historical-era Europeans — had some remote ancestry from incomers from the Pontic-Caspian steppe.
Given that the Pictish heartlands were in what is now eastern Scotland — with the Scots of Gaelic Dál Riata on the western seaboard — it is striking that the Pictish genomes have closer affinities with today’s inhabitants of western Scotland. The authors suggest that one explanation could be later medieval migration into eastern Scotland, both from Britain south of the Forth and continental Europe.
The research doesn’t only shed light on the Picts’ origins but also on their social organisation. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from seven individuals buried at Lundin Links indicated that none shared an immediate female-line ancestor. This challenges the theory that the Picts had a matrilineal society, with succession and perhaps inheritance going to the sister’s son rather than directly through the male line.
Population geneticist Dr Adeline Morez, of Liverpool John Moores University, the lead author, said: “In a matrilocal system we would expect to find females staying in their birthplace after their marriage and throughout their life. At Lundin Links, diversity in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests this was not the case. This finding challenges the older hypotheses that Pictish succession was passed along the mother’s side and raise further questions about our understanding of Pictish society and its organisation.”
The researchers point out that Bede’s account suggests Pictish matriliny may have been limited to occasions when royal succession was in dispute.
Efforts to demystify the Picts are important for understanding the origins of Scottish nationhood. During the 9th and 10th centuries, the eastward expansion of Gaelic language, customs and identity transformed the old Pictish territories into Alba, the precursor to the Kingdom of Scotland. However, historians believe there was significant continuity and a fusion of cultures.
The team’s broader findings, consistent with previous research, suggest that northern continental European ancestry associated with the Anglo-Saxon migrations expanded north and west out of southeastern England followed by mixing with local populations. In their analysis, early medieval individuals from England were genetically closer to modern Danes than to any other present-day population.
Flink and his colleagues are working on further genetic and isotope analyses that are likely to reveal more about the Picts’ ties to other early medieval groups such as the Scots of Dál Riata, Angles of Northumbria and Strathclyde Britons.
One of the characteristic artefacts of Pictish culture — a symbol stone at Aberlemno in Scotland. Photo: Shutterstock