Monday, July 8, 2013
J.P. Mallory, The Origins of the Irish
A rough sketch of the early history of Ireland would go like this: The first inhabitants arrived around 8,000 BCE, in what Europeans call the Mesolithic period. These were hunter-gatherers. They must have arrived by boat; older scholars used to posit land bridges, but the latest science shows that the land bridges were gone by the time any people arrived in post-glacial Britain. Once they reached Ireland they found a comparatively impoverished environment, with few large mammals -- no aurochs, no red deer -- few freshwater fish, and few edible plants. Their population was probably very low, 1,000 to 3,000.
Mallory also reviews the genetic evidence for the origins of Irish people, based on studies of the modern population, and explains why it tells us little about where they came from. The newspaper interpretation of the findings to date has been that the Irish are mainly descended from the original Mesolithic inhabitants. However, this is hard to square with the complete cultural break represented by the Neolithic and as Mallory shows it is not the only or even the most likely interpretation of the evidence. Progress has lately been made in answering these questions in other parts of Europe, but that has come from studying the DNA from ancient skeletons, and no such studies have yet been done in Ireland.
As I have argued before, I don't see this as a problem. Calculations based on the modern gene pool in Turkey suggest that the population is genetically between 2 and 12 percent Turkish, and while this is not a number in which I have much confidence it is only what you would expect when a tribe of nomads conquers a densely settled nation of farmers.