Who Were The Celts?

I recently purchased a copy of “Celtic from the West 2“, the follow-up volume to “Celtic from the West“, the 2012 publication edited by Barry Cunliffe and John T. Koch. Both books challenge the traditional theories about the origins of the Celtic speaking peoples, pointing to a west European and Iberian origin in the Late Bronze Age or earlier, rather than the more familiar theory of a Central European heimat or “homeland” for the early Celts. I will do a full review of both volumes in the coming weeks but if you’re interested in the intricate academic foundations of the new “western paradigm” then I strongly recommend both. Yes, some of the language is dense, terminology-laden and sentences tend to run on (and on, and on) but there are also real gems of clear and concise information within the chapters. I should point out that the books are very well-produced, with some lavish pictures and illustrations, though that is reflected in the astronomical prices of both (I usually buy ebooks, for reasons of money, space and ease of access however most academic works continue to be published the traditional way).

This related introduction by the historian, Barry Cunliffe, neatly illustrates the theory being put forward:

“1. Our traditional view of the Celts has developed over the last 300 years but
during the last 10 years the whole basis of our understanding has been challenged.
In this paper we argue that the simplest interpretation of the new evidence which is
becoming available is that the Celtic language, and the belief systems associated
with it, originated in the Atlantic zone of Europe in the fourth millennium as a
lingua franca and spread eastwards into middle Europe in the third millennium.

2. In the 17th century, influenced by the Biblical story of the Flood, scholars
believed that Europe was populated by movements from the east (eg. Aylett
Sammes 1676). This view formed the basis of the influential work by Paul-Yves
Pezron, L’ Antiquité de la nation et de la langue des Celtes (1703) which in turn
provided the historical model adopted by Edward Llhuyd to explain appearance of
Celtic languages in Britain, Ireland and Brittany in his Archaeologia (1709).
Thereafter the idea of Celtic waves flowing westwards from central Europe became
established dogma.

3. Historical texts referring to the Celts (Polybius, Livy, etc.) provide vivid
accounts of middle European “Celts” moving through Italy, the Balkans and Asia
Minor in the Hellenistic period. These are not in doubt. What concerns us here is
the situation before 450BC.

4. We consider a range of evidence, much of it new:

a) Patrick Simms-Williams distribution of Celtic names (2006).
b) John T. Koch demonstration that the Tartessian inscriptions are in
the Celtic language and date back to 800 BC (2010, 2011).
c) Greek views of the location of the “Celts” in the sixth and fifth
centuries BC.
d) Phylogenetic work of, for example, Gray and Atkinson (2003), which
argues for a very early development of the Celtic language in the
fourth millennium.

The best-fit hypothesis to contain all this new evidence is that the Celtic language
developed in the Atlantic zone of Europe and spread eastwards.

5. To test this, and to consider the cultural context, we look at the
archaeological background of Atlantic Europe in the crucial period from the fifth
to first millennium BC focusing in particular on the themes of connectivity and
mobility. We consider the maritime and riverine networks which facilitated
connectivity over the longue durée and identify four major phases of development.

• Establishing connectivity: 5000 – 2700 BC, The formation and consolidation of social networks
• Escalating mobility: 2700 – 2200 BC, The Beaker phenomenon and its interactions with the Corded
Ware/Single Grave complex
• Consolidation: 2200 – 800 BC, The development of the Atlantic Bronze Age system
• Dislocation and isolation: 800 – 400 BC, The fragmentation of the Atlantic system

Finally, we argue that the Celtic language developed as a lingua franca in the period
5000 – 2700 BC and spread eastwards with the Beaker ideology in period of
escalating mobility in the mid third millennium. It flourished and developed
during the Atlantic Bronze Age. In the first millennium BC the breakdown of
“international systems” in the Atlantic zone led to the development of distinctive
forms of Celtic e.g. Goidelic and Brythonic. This new paradigm best fits the totality
of the evidence currently available and offers an agenda for further work.”

A previous lecture by Cunliffe to Brigham Young University, which I meant to post on ASF last year, also serves as a good summary of the subject.




  1. Did you ever see or read Bob Quinn’s ‘The Atlantean Irish’ which claimed the Irish had their origins in North Africa that’s very curious in the current light of geopolitical events?

    1. Indeed I did, and I first saw the TV series on late night reruns in the 1990s. He was maybe a little bit too simplistic or ahistorical in some of his interpretations but he had the heart of it, the pan-Atlantic littoral culture, right. His instincts really did lead him in the right direction.

  2. Definitely would like to know if the volumes are worth the investment.

    One thing that’s rarely noted is that there are no place names in Ireland that are not as Gaeilge. Every other country in the world that was invaded and had it’s native population largely replaced always retains placenames in the indigenous tongue(s). Chicago vs New York for example.

    1. If you are familiar with the “reader-unfriendly” style of academic writing, and appreciate the nuts and bolts approach to the evidence, then they are definitely worth it. There is a wealth of information and opposing ideas to ponder over. For a more general reader a lot of it would be quite dry or even incomprehensible (I know the subject disciplines well and even I gave up on some paragraphs!). For the outlay, and it is a LOT of money, I would say make a purchase only if you REALLY want to see the original evidence being analysed and justified. More general summaries exist which cover the same ground at half the price and are just as good.

  3. It’s an interesting thesis certainly, but some of the evidence is rather shaky, mostly John Koch’s idea that Tartessian is Celtic. It’s not, and his ideas about it have been strenuously challenged, notably by Patrick Sims-Wiliams, who’s something of a ‘father of the field’. Koch’s ideas are based on too many assumptions unfortunately. That said, the ‘Celtic from the west’ idea shouldn’t be discounted.

    1. BMCR has a critical review of “Celtic from the West 2”, which I don’t really agree with. The criticisms are fair enough, and have some solid grounding, but I tend more towards the theory than not. On the Celticness of “Tartessian”, I’m not at all sure that is has been refuted. The jury is still very much out. Koch has a good response here.

      I notice that “Doctor” Ian Adamson OBE, he of several unionist-supporting ethno-supremacist historical fictions worthy of Dan Brown, has taken to describing Koch as the “American Celtic nationalist”!

  4. Stephen Oppenheimer in his excellent book on the subject of pre-history “The origins of the British” makes the same argument, and backs it up with a combination of detailed genetic and linguistic research, and maps out the post-ice age migrations in Western Europe and specifically that of Celts, or proto-Celts migrating north from the Iberian Peninsula to Britain and Ireland. I highly recommend the book, which I think kicked off the whole debate that you’ve described above. Barry Cunliffe is certainly a fan of his work:


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