Who were the Picts?

Feared by the Romans as fierce blue painted warriors, the Picts have captured the imagination of historians for centuries. Today we know them through the wonderful art they left carved on stones. But so little is known about a People who lived in a large part of Scotland from 300 – 850 AD, that myth has replaced factual evidence about their culture.

Image credit Bell. Pictish stones in Orkney Museum excavated in the islands

That may have changed as a new study has just been published by an international team led by researchers at the University of Aberdeen and Liverpool John Moores University. Archaeologists have conducted the first extensive analysis of Pictish genomes and their results have been published in the open access journal PLOS Genetics.

In 297, a document known as the Panegyric of Constantius Ceasar mentioned two barbarian peoples as troublesome foes of Roman Britain. One of these was the Hiberni, the inhabitants of Ireland. The other was a group whose name had not been encountered before: Picti, ‘The Picts’. The identity and ancestry of this new nation was made clear some years later when another Roman text referred to ‘the woods and marshes of the Caledonian and other Picts. Later still, in the 360s, the soldier and historian Marcellinus stated that the Picts were divided into two Peoples, the Dicalydones and Verturiones.

The Picts, A History by Tim Clarkson

The Romans referred to any peoples who they would not regard as ‘civilised’ like themselves as barbarians. It has become a term of insult , as if these people were ‘uncivilised’.

Bede (673 – 735) also said that the Picts were divided into two distinct groupings: the Northern Picts who lived beyond the great mountains, and the Southern Picts.

Myths grew up around the Picts about where they originated from but in his ‘History of Scotland’ J.D. Mackie states, ‘and there is no doubt that they were the original inhabitants of the land.’

The mysteries continued to haunt explanations of the origins of the Picts and their eventual disappearance.

the remains of the house from the Pictish period which is the shape of a shamrock
The ‘shamrock’ house at the Broch of Gurness, Orkney

In the 21st century we now have scientific methods which can be used by archaeologists and historians to confirm what many have come to understand about the Picts.

The researchers used Identity-By-Descent (IBD) methods to compare two high-quality Pictish genomes sequenced from individuals excavated from Pictish-era cemeteries at Lundin Links in Fife (Southern Pictland) and Balintore in Easter Ross (Northern Pictland) to those of previously published ancient genomes as well as the modern population of Britain.

Dr Linus Girdland Flink of the University of Aberdeen, senior corresponding author of the study, explained :

“Among the peoples present during the first millennium CE in Britain, the Picts are one of the most enigmatic.

“Their unique cultural features such as Pictish symbols and the scarcity of contemporary literary and archaeological sources resulted in many diverse hypotheses about their origin, lifestyle and culture, part of the so-called ‘Pictish problem’.

“We aimed to determine the genetic relationships between the Picts and neighbouring modern-day and ancient populations.

Linus Girdland Flink in his laboratory

“Using DNA analysis, we have been able to fill a gap in an understudied area of Scotland’s past.”

“Our results show that individuals from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria display a higher degree of Identity-By-Descent (IBD) sharing with the Pictish genomes, meaning they are genetically most similar among modern populations.”

This genetic make-up was distinct from areas of southern England where there is a greater relative degree of Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Dr Adeline Morez from Liverpool John Moores University, lead corresponding author of the study, added:

“Our findings also support the idea of regional continuity between the Late Iron Age and early medieval periods and indicates that the Picts were local to the British Isles in their origin, as their gene pool is drawn from the older Iron Age, and not from large-scale migration, from exotic locations far to the east.

“However, by comparing the samples between southern and northern Pictland we can also see that they were not one homogenous group and that there are some distinct differences, which point to patterns of migration and life-time mobility that require further study.”

a stone which is half buried with Pictish carvings including the mirror symbol
Aberlemno Carved Pictish symbol stone at Aberlemno @ Aberdeen University

The analysis of mitochondrial genomes from Lundin Links has also provided an insight into another Pictish myth – that they practised a form of matriliny, with succession and perhaps inheritance going to the sister’s son rather than directly through the male line.

“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.”

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Fiona Grahame

Categories: Science

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2 replies »

  1. Just sent a tweet to Adeline Morez on the Pictish article which came out which dismisses all African presence in the UK. My own DNA experience having done 8 tests including Big Y/ Yseq/ whole genome- subclade E-FT405608 and dated around 900 to 1000 years, growing a family tree now approaching 550,000 members, managing over 50 DNA kits of mostly Es but some autosomal cousins who are Rs, Is, Gs, and Os has forced me to do wider research into the African Picts and blacks who lived in Europe and the UK up to the 1600s/ 1700s. I have been granted 3 licenses to exhume bodies in Jamaica and have tapped some clients to continue this effort to analyze DNA samples found in the Caribbean/ Europe in independent labs. My greatest discovery is finding out Dan Sinclair from Scotland who died in Jamaica in 1860 was a Haplo E like me ! I have found other Haplo E Mcdonalds but those have been isolated for reasons unknown from my E branch.

    As to paper sources – what I have been finding is that most of the sources are missing- ie 1st century AD Roman lawyer Tacitus who observed the African Picts- most of his books are missing. Donald Monro observed blacks in Scotland in the 1500s and wrote about it but his original manuscript is missing.

    It would be great to see more African Es in your analysis / academic papers and wider research.

    Twitter comment below and feel free to contact me.

    @AdelineMorez see p. 24 of Ben’s Essay on the number of whites- and I would add Haplo Rs being very small in the 1700s ? Trying to reconcile this with your research on the African Picts re 1st AD Tacitus Where are the haplo Es?

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