DNA study reveals the origins of the medieval Picts

The Picts, a people who inhabited Scotland during the Middle Ages, have always had a sense of mystery to them. A new study using DNA has revealed new details about their origins.

Historical sources first mention the Picts in the late 3rd century AD. They resisted the Romans and ruled over a large territory in northern Britain. However, around the 9th and 10th centuries the Pictish culture would decline and those lands would form into what would be the medieval kingdom of Scotland. There are different theories to the origins – were the Picts native to Britain or did they migrate from other parts of Europe?


A new study, published in PLoS Genetics, attempts to solve this question by examining Pictish burials to extract genomes to explore how the Picts are related to other cultural groups in Britain. They sequenced DNA from two individuals from central and northern Scotland that dated from the fifth to the seventh century AD. They compared the resulting high-quality genomes to more than 8,300 previously published ancient and modern genomes.

Sampling location and the regions under ancient Brittonic, Irish and Anglo-Saxon control around the 7th century – image courtesy the authors and PLoS ONE.

Adeline Morez of Liverpool John Moores University, who led the study, explains “I always have been fascinated by human evolution overall: where are we from? How did we manage to settle worldwide and adapt to the wide diversity of environments? I chose to focus on paleogenetics, the study of ancient DNA, as it is a formidable opportunity to gain direct knowledge of an individual ancestry or a population’s genetic diversity, free from inference based on modern genomes. And now, we actually see that the migrations and population mixtures are more numerous and complex than previously hypothesised.”


The analysis revealed that Picts descended from local Iron Age populations, who lived across Britain before the arrival of mainland Europeans. Additionally, the researchers found genetic similarities between the Picts and present-day people living in western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria. Medieval traditions, including from the time of the Picts themselves, had ascribed exotic origins to the Picts including them coming from Thrace (north of the Aegean Sea), Scythia (eastern Europe), or isles north of Britain, but the new research suggests much less sensational origins.

A further analysis of DNA sequenced from seven individuals interred in a Pictish cemetery showed that the individuals did not share a common ancestor on their mother’s side. This finding suggests that females may have married outside their own social group and runs counter to older speculation, such as that mentioned by the great English scholar Bede, that the Picts were matrilineal; that they had had a society based on kinship through the mother’s lineage.

Bearded Pictish warrior from the Bullion Stone, Angus, now in the National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons

The new findings support current archaeological theories that Picts descended from Iron Age people in Britain. The study also provides novel insights into the genetic relationships that existed amongst Pictish individuals buried in cemeteries together and between ancient Picts and present-day groups in the United Kingdom.

“The two Picts studied here showed a greater affinity (by haplotype sharing) with present-day populations from western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria compared to the populations from southern England, which is important for understanding how present-day diversity formed in the UK,” Morez notes.


“Thanks to comparison with previously published genomes from Pictish people living in the Orkney islands, we could also show that individuals living in the Orkney and in mainland Scotland, likely gathered under the same cultural unit, were slightly divergent likely because of limited gene flow between the two regions and small population size in Orkney, which is known to speed up genetic divergence.”

Future research will provide new information on the Pictish lifestyle, thanks to archaeologists and co-authors of the study. This will include reassessing and excavating new Pictish sites, investigating dietary habits and mobility using stable isotopes, and further research on Pictish DNA. This ongoing project will provide an excellent tool to facilitate interdisciplinary research to connect archaeology, archaeological science, history, and human population genetics.

The article, “Imputed genomes and haplotype-based analyses of the Picts of early medieval Scotland reveal fine-scale relatedness between Iron Age, early medieval and the modern people of the UK,” by Adeline Morez, Kate Britton, Gordon Noble, Torsten Günther, Anders Götherström, Ricardo Rodríguez-Varela, Natalija Kashuba, Rui Martiniano, Sahra Talamo, Nicholas J. Evans, Joel D. Irish, Christina Donald, and Linus Girdland-Flink, appears in PLoS Genetics. Click here to read it