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Barry Cunliffe Lectures On The Celtic From The West Theory

An interesting talk by the veteran British historian and archaeologist Barry Cunliffe discussing the controversial “Celtic from the West” theory. Championed by a number of scholars, including Cunliffe and his colleague John T. Koch, the hypothesis argues that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe emerged from pastoral communities living along the Continent’s north-western coastal regions during the Late Bronze Age. The principal focus is on the Iberian Peninsula in the latter half of the 2nd millennium BCE and the argument has been outlined in three academically admired, if much debated, books. These are Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature (2012), Celtic from the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe (2013), and Celtic from the West 3: Atlantic Europe in the Metal Ages — questions of shared language (2016).

While these publications are essential for a full appreciation of the theory, and are gorgeously produced works in their own right, the detailed scholarly terminology and exorbitant prices might deter some potential buyers. The first challenge is not as insurmountable as you might think. The second is rather more difficult. I would not ask anyone to pay €60 for a book, however fascinating or enlightening its content. Unfortunately it is money not language which limits the popularity of academic Celtic studies. Meanwhile paperback books on “Celtic magic and shamanism” fly off the shelves (virtual or otherwise).


8 comments on “Barry Cunliffe Lectures On The Celtic From The West Theory

  1. Your final remark is sadly all too true. I’m not opposed to iconoclasts and maverick theories, they make you think and reassess … it’s all those people who seem willing to be anything and everything, the weirder the better … 🙂

    Of course we *know* the Irish came from Spain because LGÉ says so plainly 😉


    • You can get ebooks of some editions but most of the niche academic publishers only produce hard copies. And at astronomical prices. My last big purchase was “Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations“, which I paid 60 euros for. And then saw it as an ebook on Amazon for 10 euros. I was incandescent with anger.

      I have a bit of hate-hate relationship with most publishers of these types of works.

      I suspect most people with a genuine interest in matters Celtic know the pop-culture version of the LGÉ myth than the real versions. Precisely because they could never afford to access modern studies of the texts. as opposed to 100 year old translations filled with “thou”s and “thee”s.


    • I wonder what the archaeological consensus on giant Galician observation towers is… Well this Theory would make the Nemedians, Fir Bolg, Fomoire, and Touha de Danaan all Celts of some sort or another yes? and the Milesians would just be another Celtic tribe invading from Spain in the Iron age.


  2. Whoops! for ‘be’ read ‘believe’ (edit for me if possible) Sorry!


  3. That point would take us to the Paleolithic Continuity Theory. It’s an attractive one, at least on the face of it, but when you get down into the nitty-gritty it doesn’t really hold up. Here’s a fair criticism. I like PCT, instinctively it feels right, but factually… Probably not.


    • Yeah, some of the recent Australian evidence is fascinating. And a big challenge to the old models of a late Out-of-Africa date for humanity’s spread. Not to mention the growing evidence of human races more or less contemporary with each other in the distant past.


      • I think Cunliffe would like to push the origin date for the proto-Celts back much further than the Late Bronze Age. Probably into the Neolithic. Certainly he implies that we should equate the spread of agriculture with the spread of Indo-European dialects, though he latterly pulled back from that. The evidence isn’t really there and the old Kurgan theory still seems to be the soundest (Colin Renfrew’s Anatolian hypothesis not withstanding). That said, I would not be surprised if some shakeup in our traditional understanding of European prehistory took place in the next few years or decades, driven by DNA studies.

        For certain, the accepted idea of a Central European homeland for the Celts is looking a lot less sure than it once did, even without the competing Western littoral homeland theory.


  4. ar an sliabh

    Very interesting, thanks for the article, and thanks for the comments, lots to look into. I think as DNA science improves, there will be many more interesting discoveries regarding human evolution and the origins of people in the regions they inhabit now. Many begin to suspect some Pleistocene “hanky-panky” between the different types of humans around at the time. The “Neanderthal Code” being an early work introducing such a suspicion. Fascinating.


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