The genetic links of the Picts revealed

During the medieval period, it was speculated that the Picts had migrated from isles north of Britain, or even further-afield places such as Thrace or Scythia. A recent genetic study (published in PLOS Genetics:, however, suggests that they in fact shared ancestry with Iron Age people from Britain, indicating that they were local in origin.

With a patchy archaeological record and mostly secondary sources written by their neighbours to tell us about them, our knowledge of the Picts (c.AD 300-900) is limited, albeit slowly growing (see CA 364). To add to our understanding of this enigmatic group, a team led by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Aberdeen analysed two ancient genomes. One came from Lundin Links in Fife, in what was Southern Pictland; the other was from Balintore in Easter Ross, in what was Northern Pictland. Both cemeteries were radiocarbon dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. These are the first genomes from attested Pictish sites to be sequenced, and they were then compared with previously published genomes from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Orkney, dating from the Iron Age to the modern day.

The results not only showed that these individuals were related to those living in Britain during the Iron Age, but that there is still a higher degree of genetic continuity between them and people today from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria compared with other parts of the UK. Intriguingly, there was less continuity in eastern Scotland, which is where the political centres of Pictland were traditionally located. Additionally, these two individuals appear to be genetically different from the pre-Viking Age Picts from Orkney, suggesting that the Pictish cultural practices we see on the islands occurred via cultural diffusion and not migration.

IMAGE: University of Aberdeen IMAGE: University of Aberdeen
IMAGE: University of Aberdeen IMAGE: University of Aberdeen

The team also analysed the mitochondrial DNA (which detects matrilineal descent) of seven other individuals from Lundin Links. The results showed that none of these people had any direct shared maternal ancestors. If the Picts had been a matrilocal society (one where men move to live with their wife’s community), which some documentary evidence seems to suggest, we would expect at least some shared maternal lineage. As this does not appear to be the case, it is more probable that, at least at Lundin Links, women in this group had come from elsewhere. Isotopic analysis as well as Y chromosome analysis, which informs us of patrilineal descent amongst men in a group, is ongoing and will hopefully be able to reveal more about social organisation amongst the Picts.