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.”