Would You Go for a Pint With Your Ancestors?

Another ancient bog body has been accidentally uncovered this week. No doubt he will become known as “Rossan Man” after the Co. Meath bog in which he was found and join the illustrious list of similarly named Irish bog men: Moydrum Man, Old Croghan Man, Clonycavan Man and Cashel Man et al. Bog bodies are the remains of prehistoric men that turn up from time to time in the peat bogs of Ireland, where the lack of oxygen and low pH keeps them in an uncannily well-preserved state (think of a mummy without the bandages) and the theory goes that these were noblemen (possibly even chiefs) who were sacrificed for the good of the tribe during lean times. This practice went on from Neolithic times up until the Iron Age.

Just like the archaeologists who will be meticulously excavating in and extricating the bog man from the peat of Rossan bog, I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately — family-tree related digging; not just traditional genealogy, but also genetic genealogy. I’ve had my DNA put through the wringer by the National Genographic program. After studying the results, I feel a certain kinship with Rossan Man and all the other Men. According to the National Genographic’s analysis, based on comparing hundreds of thousands of markers throughout my genome with those of reference genomes, I am: 3.3% Neanderthal; 3.3% Denisovan (a little-known hominid cousin of ours who was mooching around Eurasia during the Palaeolithic); of north European hunter-gatherer stock (not very much of the Neolithic farmers from the Fertile Crescent in my genome!); on the male side, as Irish as Irish can be (I have the CTS4466 “South Irish” or Eóganacht marker, placing the origins of my male line in Munster about 1,700 years ago; this hardly comes as a surprise since the Cronin clan was a sub-sect of the Eóganacht clan and is recorded as starting out in the Fermoy area of Munster about AD 400); on my female side, my most recent mitochondrial marker, H6a1b2, which is quite rare in Ireland, could possibly have arisen on the Iberian Peninsula [Galicia or Catalonia] during the early Bronze Age and travelled up to Ireland with the Bell Beaker people [or not: so little is known about H6a1b2 that it could equally have arrived to Ireland via the Viking slave trade]).

So: I’m a class of south Ireland hunter-gatherer, with more Neanderthal and Denisovan than the average northern European (this being 2.2%).

“Explains a lot,” some people might say.

The abbreviated version of my National Genographic analysis.

The abbreviated version of my National Genographic analysis.

The obvious thought to strike one after having dug so deep into one’s ancestry is what one’s forebears were like. Among reams of physical evidence (old swords, pottery, the famous lunulae and torques), we have the bog bodies which give us an eerie peek into what our ancestors might have looked like. We have their DNA. We know what they wore, what they ate. The tools they used. Comparative linguistics tells us what they might have spoken. But what were they like? What would it have been like to go for a pint with my distant cousin, Rossan Man? (Going for a pint with someone being the ultimate litmus test for soundness!)

In attempting to answer this, it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking in clichés and through painting one’s ancestors in broad brushstrokes, dehumanise and reduce them to the lowest common denominator; life in the past was “short, brutish and nasty”; societies were rigidly hierarchical and the family into which you were born determined your destiny more than any other factor; the limits of your universe were no greater than the boundaries of your tribal lands; people lived hand to mouth and died young of violent deaths. While it is true that violence was much more a factor in daily life the farther back one goes (Stephen Pinker argued in his 2011 work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, that in tribal societies up to 25% of people died at the hands of fellow human beings), life in medieval or in prehistoric Ireland had to have been far richer than just toil, disease, periodic famine and bands of warriors milling about and sticking spears into each other. Weren’t my ancestors among those who gave the world the Rock of Cashel, Clonmacnoise, the Book of Kells, Newgrange, Dún Aonghasa and the Céide Fields? Wasn’t their mythology vivid and extensive? Wasn’t their spirituality and cosmology every bit as complex and tailored to their environment as the rites and pantheons of Hindu? Aren’t some of the memes in my own set and those of my fellow Irishmen traceable all the way back to the Palaeolithic? On the other hand, it would be an equally foolish mistake to go down the “noble savage” road and think of the Gaels or the Milesians or Fir Bolg (or whoever) solely in terms of them being intensely spiritual people with their unworldly minds fixed on the cycles of nature, the gods, their standing stones, their burial rites, their warrior honour codes, music and poetry. What about the slave trade they engaged in, the piracy, the constant warring?

As with many things, to get as near the truth as is possible for a modern man looking back through the centuries, one must take the middle ground. The ancient Irish were neither beasts of the field nor exalted seraphim, but a mixture of both.

Imagine then if I was capable of building a time machine which also functioned as a pub. If, using my time machine/pub, I journeyed into the past, what sort of people would I find to sit in the snug and sup a slow pint of the black stuff with? Of course, prior to becoming a time travelling publican and especially if I were to set my infernal contraption — my time saloon!— to send me back any more than one-hundred-and-fifty years, I would need to brush up on my Irish. Up until the Great Famine in the middle of the nineteenth century, Irish (or Gaelic) would have been the dominant language in the parts of the country in which my ancestors were to be found. From the Cromwellian conquest onwards you could probably have gotten by in the big cities knowing only English but the cúpla focail would have been necessary in the countryside.

If I did have a working time machine/pub, I think I’d start off with a trial visit to an era not too far back on the scale of things — the seventeenth century maybe. While still a huge culture shock, jumping back a few centuries would be nothing compared to the alternative reality that prehistory would present. And, I think three-hundred-and-fifty years ago, they would at least have known what a pub was — and a glass, and a chair. Assuming that I had mastered Irish, how would a conversation go between me and a Cronin from three-hundred-and-fifty years ago? Would he look at me and marvel at how well-preserved I was as a thirty-nine-year-old? That I appeared well-fed, had all my own teeth, had no limbs withered from polio and a face free from the scars of smallpox? Would he examine my hands — hands that have never toiled digging for prátaí or driving a plough — and wonder if I was a gentleman or a scribe or musician? When our conversation moved on to his own life perhaps he would tell me of his people being driven off their lands — lands they had held for a thousand years — by the English. Of decades of war, defeat at Kinsale, the Flight of the Earls, the defeat of Gaelic Ireland. Of struggling to pay rents to a foreign aristocratic usurper. Of the suppression of his own language, to the extent that it was illegal to write in Irish and that the king’s men had changed his name from Ó Cróinín to Cronin. Would I hear with horror of the death of infants, children swept away by disease, tales of poverty and a harsh existence in sharp contrast to the luxury in which I have lived my own life? But there surely would also be the joie de vivre for which the Irish are famed. When the beer took its effect, would that man sing me songs or pull out a penny whistle or even yawl away on a uillean pipe? Would there be talk of patterns, feast days, markets, visits to holy wells and revels at Bealtaine and Imbolc?

I imagine what would strike me most in any conversation with an ancestor, especially the further back I was to go, would be their religiosity, be that in the context of Christianity or paganism. For us modern types, living in what is the world’s most secular and rational age, it is probably impossible for us to grasp the extent to which religion and its bedfellow, superstition, dominated life up until very recently. In Ireland belief in the fairies still persists. Only a decade ago, a section of the N18 motorway near Dromoland in Co. Clare was diverted so as not to lead to the destruction of a magic whitethorn bush where the little people of Munster are reputed to gather before raiding into Connacht. I’m sure this would have resonated with Rossan Man. In 1895 (not that long ago on the scale of things) Bridget Cleary of Co. Tipperary was burnt alive by her husband who thought he was setting flames to a fairy changeling. Again, Rossan Man would see nothing out of the ordinary in this act. Steadfast belief in a fairy-dominated Otherworld survived the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and persisted in parallel to the new religion right up to the present. If up until the last century the Otherworld was invoked to explain the most mundane of phenomenon such as the failure for cream to curdle or the death of livestock, it must have permeated every waking moment of the lives of prehistoric peoples.

I get the feeling that a pint with Rossan Man or one of his prehistoric Man friends would not go as well as it would with my seventeenth century drinking buddy. Not because he would be a dumb, primitive brute or because of some kind of low-brow hostility to outsiders. It wouldn’t be because the porter would have gone to his head and that he’d be acting the baluba (or acting balubas even!) after a couple of sips of the hard stuff.  I just have a hunch we wouldn’t click. There would too much distance to bridge. My lack of fearful respect for the Otherworld would mark me as separate from Rossan Man and his contemporaries, and this, more than my literacy, use of scientific reason, experience of technology and unfamiliarity with violence or deprivation, would form a barrier between us which would prove impermeable to whatever common ground we could find. The mentality that demands as a solution to a bad harvest or a defeat in battle the ritual sacrifice of a human being seems so alien to me that I find myself wondering if my fanciful time travel and libation-lubricated encounters with my ancestors would ultimately prove less than satisfactory — fascinating, certainly, but also frustrating and, in many ways, chilling. And I think the further back one were to go, the more fraught the entire experience would be, the differences greater, the possibility of mutual misunderstanding higher.

Although the genetic code responsible for the building of this twenty-first century hominid and the operating system that runs it is essentially unchanged since the time of the Proto-Celtic-speaking worshipers of Dagda who called Ireland their home all those millennia ago, the other elements that go into the mix of making a person couldn’t be more different; family life, education, gender roles, the organisation of society, division of labour, religion, technology, politics, warfare, the arts . . . It’s nature vs nurture. Time has been kind to the DNA, just throwing up the odd mutation here and there, but it has utterly had its way with the old belief systems that carried the Gaels through the ages. The DNA bridge to the past still spans the millennia but most of the culture that formed a parallel walkway has crumbled away to the extent that I could just about handle meeting my forefathers from the last few centuries, but an encounter with one from significantly earlier would require a profound shift in thinking and acceptance of beliefs and practices which today we regard as benighted, brutal and — yes — barbaric.

So: a couple of pints with Rossan Man, by all means, but I don’t think I’m up for prowling the nightclubs with him!


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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9 Responses to Would You Go for a Pint With Your Ancestors?

  1. Stan says:

    A very interesting thought experiment! As for the question of what they were really like, William Golding’s novel The Inheritors is a worthy and lyrical attempt to imagine the inner life of Neanderthals. (I’ll lend it to you if you want.)

  2. slpsharon says:

    This was interesting.

  3. Midwestern Plant Girl says:

    Great read! I would be curious as to my roots, however probably not enough at the moment to spends time researching it. How did you come across the DNA test center? Funny insert here: My friend had her ‘mutt’ dog tested and got a list of all the breeds that went into his mix. Ironically, we all thought he was terrier, but no terrier DNA.

  4. Mary says:

    I think I’ll work backwards and try for a pint with my famine dead first.

  5. On my female side, I’m H6a1b2 also. I found your article in search of any leads about what that means and really enjoyed your musings. Thank you, brother!

    • ucronin says:

      Hi Cousin. If you want to find out more, or just hook up with your distant cousins there’s a Facebook group:
      mtDNA Haplogroup H -Subgroup H6
      Some interesting stuff crops up from time to time. I’m still no closer to figuring it all out. It’s so rare a marker that we may have to be patient!

  6. Christine Wands says:

    I, too, am H6a1b2. I know my maternal ancestors for five generations, and they were all Swedes, from the province of Varmland (north of Lake Vanern, and just east of the border of modern-day Norway). So the Viking connection seems likely.

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