Ancient DNA Rewrites the History of Prehistoric Orkney – “Britain’s Ancient Capital”

Bronze Age Women Altered Genetic Landscape of Orkney

An international team led by researchers at the University of Huddersfield has used ancient DNA to rewrite the history of the Orkney islands. The research has been published by the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and is entitled ‘Ancient DNA at the edge of the world: Continental immigration and the persistence of Neolithic male lineages in Bronze Age Orkney’ by Katharina Dulias, George Foody, Pierre Justeau et al. Credit: Graeme Wilson

Bronze Age women altered genetic landscape of Orkney, study finds.

An international team led by researchers at the University of Huddersfield has used ancient DNA to rewrite the history of the Orkney islands to show that Orkney actually experienced large-scale immigration during the Early Bronze Age, which replaced much of the local population.

The project was a close collaboration between genetic researchers in Huddersfield and Edinburgh, led by Professor Martin Richards and Dr. Ceiridwen Edwards, and archaeologists living and working on Orkney.

Orkney is world-famous for its archaeological heritage. Around 5000 years ago, during the Neolithic period when farming first took hold, it was a hugely influential cultural center. With many superbly preserved stone dwellings, temples, and megalithic monuments, and a style of ceramics that appears to have spread out across Britain and Ireland, it has even been described as “Britain’s ancient capital.”

Over the thousand years that followed however, as Europe moved into the Bronze Age, it has been widely viewed that somehow Orkney became left behind. Its influence dwindled and the islands became more insular. But with fewer archaeological remains to study, much less was known about this time.

By combining archaeology with the study of ancient DNA from Bronze Age human remains from the Links of Noltland site, on the remote northern island of Westray, researchers now know much more about this time than ever before, and the results have come as a great surprise to geneticists and archaeologists alike.

“This research shows how much we still have to learn about one of the most momentous events in European prehistory – how the Neolithic came to an end.”

Professor Martin Richards, University of Huddersfield

Firstly, despite the supposed insularity, the team has shown that Orkney experienced large-scale immigration during the Early Bronze Age, which replaced much of the local population. The new arrivals were probably the first to speak Indo-European languages, and carried genetic ancestry derived in part from pastoralists living on the steppe lands north of the Black Sea.

This mirrored what was happening in the rest of Britain and Europe in the third millennium BC. But the researchers found a fascinating difference that makes Orkney highly distinctive.

Across most of Europe, the expansion of pastoralists on the eve of the Bronze Age was typically led by men, with women being sucked into the expanding populations from local farming groups. But in Orkney the researchers found exactly the opposite. The Bronze Age newcomers were mainly women, while male lineages from the original Neolithic population survived for at least another thousand years – something not seen anywhere else. These Neolithic lineages, however, were replaced from the Iron Age and are vanishingly rare today.

But why was Orkney so different? Dr. Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore of the Orkney-based EASE Archaeology, who excavated the Links of Noltland, argue that the answer may lie in the long-term stability and self-sufficiency of farmsteads on Orkney, which the genetic data suggests may have already been male dominated by the peak of the Neolithic. When a Europe-wide recession hit towards the end of the Neolithic, they may have been uniquely placed to weather harsher times and maintain their grip on the population as newcomers arrived.

This implies that Orkney was much less insular than has long been assumed, and that there was a protracted period of negotiation between the indigenous males and the newcomers from the south, over many generations.

“This shows that the third-millennium BC expansion across Europe was not a monolithic process but was more complex and varied from place to place,” explained Dr. George Foody, one of the lead researchers on the project from the University of Huddersfield.

The results have been surprising for both the archaeologists and geneticists on the team, although for different reasons: the archaeologists did not expect such large-scale immigration, whereas the geneticists did not foresee survival of the Neolithic male lineages.

The University’s Director of the Evolutionary Genomics Research Centre Professor Martin Richards said: “This research shows how much we still have to learn about one of the most momentous events in European prehistory – how the Neolithic came to an end.”

The research has been published by the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Reference: “Ancient DNA at the edge of the world: Continental immigration and the persistence of Neolithic male lineages in Bronze Age Orkney” by Katharina Dulias, George Foody, Pierre Justeau et al., 7 February 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The work was part of a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarship program awarded to Professor Richards and Dr. Maria Pala, and the excavations at the Links of Noltland were funded by Historic Environment Scotland.

6 Comments on "Ancient DNA Rewrites the History of Prehistoric Orkney – “Britain’s Ancient Capital”"

  1. Finding DNA in the dirt is beyond Sci-Fi. Its fantastic. DNA is some tough stuff.

  2. If you read the report, it seem that there was a large influx of women from continental Europe into what was a very established male society, it compares to similar societies in Ireland too. That line survived intact for a very long time and was the dominant male lineage of the island. So, examining the actual way these very ordered societies ran, I can see a decline in local woman being replaced by either female slaves from Europe or (as happened a short time ago as the 1800’s in places like Canada) woman being sourced deliberately by a strong dominant male group that wanted their island communities to thrive and so ‘procured’ women from European sources. The idea that somehow and against most known facts about such communities, a large group of women decided for themselves to relocate to the Orkney islands is ridiculous. Whilst it doesn’t say this directly it IS intimated. It was certainly not uncommon for woman to be bartered as breeding slaves to maintain a community and of course all their descendance would then contain their DNA rather than a pure Orkney DNA, thus changing the DNA of the islands and heralding the decline of the male lines DNA. So, these woman were very definitely central to DNA change in the Islands, but to my mind, it was a forced change in order to maintain a community that was strongly led and dominant in the region rather than some form of voluntary ‘invasion’ by woman to come to dominate the islands. Slavery and enforced relocation, especially of women was very common during this period.

  3. Having a self sustainable island as a stronghold for your community in harsh times gives you a strategic advantage. If you had a surplus of livestock or food you could go to the coast and barter for wives, or if you had a surplus of young men I’m sure they had their own form of going “aviking” back then too and taking wives by force.
    Trading the females of a clan was also a common way to create good dynastic relations among societies

  4. Sandra Barnhouse | February 8, 2022 at 7:06 pm | Reply

    I would like to be put in touch with anyone who is familiar with the Barnhouse Settlement near the Rings of Brodgar and Stenness. I was right there the day I turned 50 but unaware that my name could be found nearby. That was in 1993. I’m curious about how long the settlement has carried the name of Barnhouse, and whether there’s any connection with Barnhouse’s in southern England, perhaps Devonshire.

  5. If one has a stable community with decent food and is relatively free from invasion, one has security.Perhaps secure societies don’t need to toddle off for a bit of rape and pillage in order to grab female slaves for breeding purposes. Perhaps the very security such societies offer is incentive enough to for women to seek husbands in such a society. The so-called “mail-order” brides of today also seek security in countries more comfortable than their own. That is normal, sensible human behaviour. Whether at the time there was a postal service to the Orkneys is perhaps an interesting line of research to follow

  6. Theresa Galloway | February 16, 2022 at 4:34 pm | Reply

    The debate over why females chose to stay along the Bearing Straight ancient trading routes is laughable from a female perspective remembering the graves of great honor provided some petite ancient bones. Apparently not chattel mentality. Nor slave. Get over the Y chromosome fixation and be good to your mom silly men.

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