Meet the 5,000 year old farmer who is re-writing history books

Excavated near Belfast in 1855, the bones of this farmer had lain in a Neolithic tomb chamber for 5,000 years. Her DNA has now been sequenced. Photograph: Daniel Bradley, Trinity College Dublin
Excavated near Belfast in 1855, the bones of this farmer had lain in a Neolithic tomb chamber for 5,000 years. Her DNA has now been sequenced. Photograph: Daniel Bradley, Trinity College Dublin
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We are who we think we are but we are not as we seem.

I must confess when I read this week that the Irish are descended from early Middle East migrant farmers I felt quite pleased with the idea that our ancestors were hard working foreigners who came here in their masses.

Sandra Chapman

Sandra Chapman

Five thousand years on we’re still getting Middle Easterners to our shores only this time certain sections of the Irish population regard them as having no right to be here.

The notion that we were, and still are, some kind of exclusive Celtic race is simply not true. Not that anyone has advised Sinn Fein and its clique of republican followers to that effect. They seemed to think we’re uniquely Irish and the English have no right to be here.

Clearly our genes contain all kinds of throw-backs to that time. Geneticists from Trinity College, Dublin and archaeologists from Queen’s University, Belfast looked at the genome of a female farmer who lived in Belfast 5,200 years ago.

She had black hair and brown eyes. A DNA analysis of three men who lived on Rathlin Island 4,000 years ago shows it is quite likely that the debilitating disease haemochromatosis – excessive iron retention – may have had its origins in them working in metal there.

This unusual disease exists in the Northern Irish today. Previously the origin of its heritage had been unknown. These are such fascinating facts and should give us lots to think about as this New Year begins.

My late mother often wondered where her father got the dark hair and brown eyes she inherited.

She passed these traits on to two of her children. Her other seven children were fair haired and with mostly grey/blue eyes. Was her ancestor a female farm hand from the Middle East working the fields of what was Belfast 5,000 years ago? I would like to know.

The current migration of Middle Eastern people to the UK means the cycle begins again and perhaps in five millennia from now some naturally curious person will be asking why they look like they do. I happen to know someone who suffers from haemochromatosis. Her diagnosis took a long time as it is not a common condition here. I think she will be pleased to know more about how this disease came here.

Over one million refugees and migrants have come to Europe in the past year alone, many of them to the UK. Millions more are expected and no one should doubt that in the near future we will be like the iconic sixties Hot Chocolate song A Great Big Melting Pot with all kinds of traits mixed into families.

There will be no such thing as families being exclusively English or Irish, Scottish or even Cornish. According to this newspaper Christmas just past saw a family of Syrian refugees sit down to a Christmas meal with Halal turkey in the Common Grounds café in Belfast.

Were they Christians or Muslims? I’m sure no one asked. Who knows, they may in fact have been coming `home’ to Belfast the place where Middle Eastern migrants found safety and prosperity a long time ago.

Maybe those in charge of our education system now – it’s in a pitiful state of chaos – should take another look at the history curriculum to ensure that Catholic children are not taught an exclusively Irish bent on the past, nor should Protestant children be taught that it all began in England with Henry VIII and his penchant for murdering his wives.

Clearly our actual past is much more interesting than anything from the last 1,000 years. That farming lady from the Middle East is a fascinating part of what we are, not what we think we are. We need to know a lot more.