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Irish And Celtic Origins In The Late Bronze Age

At the end of last year I discussed the publication of a research paper analysing the ancient DNA remains of a number of individuals who reached Ireland during – and perhaps heralding – the Neolithic and later Bronze Age periods in Irish history. The mapping of their genomes by a team of geneticists indicated that those from the Neolithic era ultimately originated in the Middle East, modern Turkey and its immediate neighbours, while those from the Bronze Age could be traced back to migrants from somewhere in south-eastern Europe, possibly from around the Black Sea. Peter Whoriskey in The Washington Post newspaper has returned to the subject with a broader article examining how the results may effect our modern understanding of “Celticness” as it relates to Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

“From as far back as the 16th century, historians taught that the Irish are the descendants of the Celts, an Iron Age people who originated in the middle of Europe and invaded Ireland somewhere between 1000 B.C. and 500 B.C.

“The DNA evidence based on those bones completely upends the traditional view,” said Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Oxford who has written books on the origins of the people of Ireland.

“The most striking feature” of the bones, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, is how much their DNA resembles that of contemporary Irish, Welsh and Scots. (By contrast, older bones found in Ireland were more like Mediterranean people, not the modern Irish.)

Radiocarbon dating shows that the bones …go back to about 2000 B.C. That makes them hundreds of years older than the oldest artifacts generally considered to be Celtic — relics unearthed from Celt homelands of continental Europe, most notably around Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

“With the genetic evidence, the old model is completely shot,” John Koch, a linguist at the Center for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales.

Exactly where this leaves the pervasive idea that the Irish and other people of the area are “Celtic” is unclear. It depends on the definition of Celtic.

There are essentially two definitions — and two arguments.

The first revolves around language.

…some think that Celtic languages originated with the Celts on continental Europe and subsequently spread to Ireland, Wales and Scotland. This is the traditional view, and it dovetails with the idea that the Celts moved into Ireland during the Iron Age.

But over the last decade, a growing number of scholars have argued that the first Celtic languages were spoken not by the Celts in the middle of Europe but by ancient people on Europe’s westernmost extremities, possibly in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or the other locales on the western edges of the British Isles.

Koch, the linguist at the University of Wales, for example, proposed in 2008 that “Celtic” languages were not imports to the region but instead were developed somewhere in the British Isles or the Iberian Peninsula — and then spread eastward into continental Europe.

His doubts about the traditional view arose as he was studying inscriptions on artifacts from southern Portugal. The inscriptions on those artifacts strongly resembled the languages known as Celtic, yet they dated as far back as 700 B.C. This placed Celtic languages far from the Celt homelands in the middle of Europe at a very, very early date.

“What it shows is that the language that became Irish was already out there — before 700 B.C. and before the Iron Age,” Koch said. “It just didn’t fit with the traditional theory of Celtic spreading west to Britain and Iberia.”

The second line of argument arises from archaeology and related sources.

…some archaeologists have proposed that the traditional story of the Celts’ invasion was, in a sense, exactly wrong — the culture was not imported but exported — originating on the western edge of Europe much earlier than previously thought and spreading into the continent.

In a 2001 book, Cunliffe, the Oxford scholar, argued on the basis of archaeological evidence that the flow of Celtic culture was opposite that of the traditional view — it flowed from the western edge of Europe, what he calls “the Atlantic zone” — into the rest of the continent.

“If we’re right, the roots of what is known as ‘Celtic’ culture go way way back in time,” Cunliffe said. “And the genetic evidence is going to be an absolute game-changer.”

According to the genetic research, the Irish are at the extreme end of a genetic wave that washed across Europe, a wave of migrants that swept westward from above the Black Sea across Europe about 2,500 B.C.”


4 comments on “Irish And Celtic Origins In The Late Bronze Age

  1. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    Well the other way to look at is that the narrative that Celtic languages only spread due to Iron age is wrong. Both Anatolian and Hellenic branches of Indo-European are attested to Bronze age (1600BC for Anatolian in form of Hittite).

    What the aDNA study did if anything was show that Bronze age appears to mark discontunity in population structure across Europe, where we see input of “Steppe” like ancestry. The likes of Reich (Harvard) links this to expansion of Proto-Indo-European.

    So perhaps another narrative would be to suggest that various dialects of Proto-IE expanded into Western Europe during Bronze age, and due to isolation etc ended up splitting to form the various major branches (Celtic, Italic, Germanic), stuff like long distance trade networks during the “Atlantic Bronze age” probably if anything led to dialect levelling/convergence due to contact networks.

    What should be pointed out that though Rathlin island men obviously show some resemblance to modern Irish samples they also show some distance, in the sense because modern Irish population has reduced Steppe ancestry and increased amount of Neolithic input. This is because the group(s) that the Rathlin men belong to eventually would have heavily intermarried with any neolithic population in Ireland (a parallel might be to look at situation in Latin America)


  2. Mandrake

    This was a study of four ancient genomes one from the neolithic
    rcd to 5200 bp, and three from early bronze age, 4000-3500bp.
    The neolithic female’s genome plots as western Mediterranean and her closest living relatives are in Sardinia and Iberia, not the eastern Mediterranean. She has significent western hunter gather admixture of about 40%. So she wouldn’t look as Mediterranean as a typical Sardinian , being somewhat more northern shifted phenotypically. (although Sardinians do have some WHG)
    The three men from Rathlin also have Mediterranean and Hunter Gather components as well as Steppe component.This latter component is novel , appearing in Central and Western Europe in the Bronze Age. It is rational and parsimonious to assume that this component is the genetic signature of the bearers of Indoeuropean language, proto indoeuropean would later differentiate into the familiar branches Latin, Celtic , Germanic ect. I have long felt that its wrong to associate the Irish people and the Goidelic language with the iron age Hallstat culture. Rather we should expect the emergence of Goidelic in the early bronze age.
    The shift in the genomes of Central and Western Europeans indicate a massive migration and mingling of peoples in central Europe. These Ratlin
    men or the Modern Irish are not unadmixed easterners, they are mostly Western Hunter Gather with Significent (15-30 %) Early European Farmer (Anatolian) component.
    What’s most surprising in this paper is the genetic discontinuity between the neolithic Irish sample and the bronze age Irish.
    The Early European Farmer componet in the Irish bronze age individuals (and the modern Irish) is derived from the Linearbandkermetic culture of central Europe, whereas the neolithic Irish derives her EEF from the Cardium culture of the Western Mediterranean.

    To sum up, The Irish and their language were formed by the admixture of three component populations , Hunter Gathers, LBK farmers
    and Pontic Steppe
    It seems that we are not the children of the builders of Newgrange or the Ceidi fields. In fact our ancestors with their horses and bronze axes went on a genocidal rampage when they got here. I have searched y haplogroup and mitochondrial heat maps in the hope of finding some survival of the Irish neolithic
    genes and found higher frequency of y haplogroup 1 m26 (5%) in some area west of the Shannon, also mtdna hvo h3, which the Irish neolithic woman carried, is slightly elevated in Ireland . Our mix of genes and our language were formed 4500 years ago in north west Germany and our nation was born from what today we would call genocide.
    Maybe its time to put to bed romantic founding myths .


    • I´m not sure if any firm conclusions can be drawn from the DNA evidence of a handful of individuals from a couple of sites.

      Since Ireland was, prior to transatlantic travel, literally at the end of the world, and since most technological and social innovations that affected Europe seem to have originated well to the East (agriculture, better agriculture, metals, horses, wheels …) it seems obvious that waves of immigrants, each having something that gave them an advantage, would have passed across Europe, and when the reached Ireland, piled in on top of those that came before. Each in turn would either have assimilated the ´natives´ or been assimilated by them, but either way the result would be a mixture.

      Think of the Anglo-Norman ¨Old English¨ who within a couple of generations were speaking Irish, but who in their turn introduced many English and French elements into Gaeilge, or OTOH the modern English-speaking Irish population, whose language shows many influences from the Irish or their not too distant forebears.

      Old Irish has many of the hallmarks of an Indo-European language of the Celtic branch, but nevertheless it had undergone many changes. In fact the earliest Old Irish looks like it was recently hit by the linguistic equivalent of a major earthquake! Clearly it had come into contact with and reacted to one or more other quite different forms of speech. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to calculate the proportion of the OI vocabulary that is traceable to Proto-Indo-European. Probably a lot less than you think. The problem is that nothing is known of any earlier languages in Ireland, so we over-emphasise the know since there´s nothing very useful that can be said about the residue,

      Saying that the Irish are IE is a bit like saying you´re (for example) a Kelly or a Sweeny (or whatever), since that only addresses the male line, just half of your parentage, and a quarter of your grandparents and so on back. So if we conceptulise nations as people, the Irish may have a PIE great-grandfather, but lost of other groups have married in over the years, recent neighbours like Britons, English, French and Scandinavians, and further back into prehistory ancient peoples of whom we know nothing. They are however still a part of you, a part of Irish identity in all it´s confusing mystery and irrationality. How more Irish can you get than that?

      As for romantic founding myths, I actually think for its time Lebor Gabála Érenn is a reasonable mythological interpretation of what I´ve outlined above.


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