The ancient burial site in Ireland pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids.
DNA tests have become a popular way to learn about your family history. They unlock many doors to understanding, illuminating and clarifying the stories passed down through the generations and sometimes revealing shocking truths. DNA is now a vital part of criminal investigations, confirming guilt or innocence in many cases. It’s helped police to solve old mysteries that frustrated investigators of the past. DNA evidence has brought closure to the families of missing people by confirming the identity of remains. But DNA testing can also teach us about history. It can fill in vital pieces of information, adding details that completely change our understanding of ancient times.
Newgrange, the ancient passage tomb in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, is rich in clues but we’ve mostly been left to imagine what they could mean. We make educated guesses about the meaning of the intricate and beautiful carved swirls in the stones and indeed about the reasons these amazing structures exist. Remains there do tell us that they are graves, but until the development of DNA testing, we’ve known little about who is buried there.
Recent DNA investigations on those remains have given us some vital, if disturbing, insight into ancient Ireland and those buried in Newgrange. Some people today are very wary of using DNA tests because they worry about discovering some long secret infidelity or scandal in the family. And the DNA testing of remains at Newgrange has discovered one individual who had identical DNA from their mother and father. This means their parents were most likely brother and sister, although they could have parent and child. Experts believe this was a ritual among the elites of the time rather than hidden abuse.
Did the Ancient Irish Consider Their Elites’ as Gods?
In many ancient cultures, the ruling elite were considered divine or demigods. Not only did society accept they were entitled to rule and enjoy tremendous wealth and power, they also believed these elites were exempt from all normal rules of human society. When the researchers at Newgrange discovered one individual who was the product of an incestuous union, they knew this was not isolated. Some ancient rulers in parts of Asia, the Pacific and South America were known to practice incest, although it was taboo for ordinary people. One purpose of it was to keep power and wealth concentrated in one family. Today, we have no way to know what else it meant to the people of those times.
Genetic testing also revealed that an infant buried in Newgrange had Down Syndrome. Researchers could also tell the child had been breastfed. That and the burial site is ample evidence that the baby was a treasured member of the elite. This too gives us some insight into the culture of ancient Ireland.
DNA is only one piece of the puzzle, but it is an important one. It can tell us things artifacts, carvings and the remains of ancient structures cannot. We can only imagine what else it will teach us about our Celtic ancestors.