28 January 2023 The Future is the Product of the Past

Researchers believe mass immigration to Orkney during the Bronze Age was mostly led by women

Researchers believe mass immigration to Orkney during the Bronze Age was mostly led by women.

 Mass migration to Orkney during the dawn of the Bronze Age was led mostly by women, new scientific research suggests.

Orkney, an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, experienced large-scale immigration during the early Bronze Age period.

Genetic studies of ancient DNA from human remains found on the islands off the north coast of Scotland show an influx of predominantly women as Europe moved into the Bronze Age approximately 4500 years ago.

Researchers say the new evidence, compiled by Edinburgh and Huddersfield universities, contradicts previous assumptions that Orkney was a relatively insular community after the Neolithic period.

The Story Behind Orkney's Skara Brae
Neolithic houses on Orkney, Scotland

But while most resettlements across Europe were typically led by men as livestock farming expanded, the opposite was the case in Orkney.

Bronze Age newcomers were mainly women, with survival in Orkney of male lineages from the original Neolithic population for at least another thousand years – a unique phenomenon that scientists have not seen anywhere else.

Researchers believe new arrivals were probably the first visitors to Orkney speaking Indo-European languages and carried genetic ancestry derived in part from livestock farmers living on the steppe lands north of the Black Sea.

Jim Wilson, professor of human genetics at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, said: “It’s absolutely fascinating to discover that the dominant Orcadian Neolithic male genetic lineage persisted at least 1000 years into the Bronze Age, despite replacement of 95% of the rest of the genome by immigrating women. This lineage was then itself replaced and we have yet to find it in today’s population.”

Dr. Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore of the Orkney-based Ease (Environment and Archaeology Services Edinburgh) Archaeology, who excavated the Links of Noltland, suggest that the long-term stability and self-sufficiency of farmsteads on Orkney, which the genetic data suggests may have already been dominated by men at the peak of the Neolithic era, made the island less susceptible to the arrival of outsiders.

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

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cover Photo: Ness og brodgar rekonstruksiyon

The University of Edinsburg

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