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).

Sigh

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11 comments

  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 😉

    1. 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.

  2. Late Bronze age is very late indeed. Two things to reflect on – establishing a continent spanning culture on the eve of the great collapse of Bronze age civilisations and Newgrange, Carnac. In the same way the North Sea provided a common culture, the Bay of Biscay, Celtic & Irish Seas did the same (look at the history & cultures of east vs west UK). Travel by sea has historically been the easiest form of travel given the forests, mountains and rivers in Europe.

    Irish people have been on the island since the retreat of the ice ~13kya and had large oak forests that survived into the Tudor reign. Everything in the country has a name that means something in Irish – there are no Chicago’s here. There was no Celtic invasion. The Irish language has always been here.

    Either the Celts came from Ireland or with those Paleolithic hunter gatherers that followed the retreating ice north. Cunliffe is on the right track but the Late Bronze age is far too late.

    Reading the histories of the California native peoples reveals a lot of parallels to pre-Norman Ireland. Management of Oak forests for example leaps right out – there’s no way anyone could pass the Fianna entrance requirements if the forests were not actively managed. Agriculture precedes field systems by at least thousands of years, more likely tens of and possibly hundreds of thousands of years.

      1. Dan Bradley’s lab at TCD has put out a couple of papers the last 10 years with DNA evidence that ~90% of Irish are direct descendants of the original Paleolithic migrants. The Basques are the Irish closest genetic relatives. They are the other Paleolithic holdouts.

        Ireland is on the fringes of Europe and has never had a mass population replacement as Europe has had in waves, and the UK has had. The haplotype clines from west to east Europe can’t be argued with. The DNA cannot lie on this. There have been contributions from other cultures, the recent Mediterranean DNA contributions for example. Vikings get a high single digit contribution. But again in every single haplotype the contours are steep from west to east, and while all the other Paleolithic HGs got outbred or wiped out on the continent, they held on in Ireland and the Basque region.

        If you followed the Out-of-Afria vs Multi-regional debate (or introns early/late) or any debate where there is intense, unrelenting advocacy for both sides, you generally find out it’s a bit of both. No matter how inconceivable it is for either side to contemplate.

        1. 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.

          1. Race is a political construct. We interbred with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and every other variant of Homo that came out of Africa over the last two million years.

            The DNA evidence for PHGs persisting into modern day in Ireland and the Basque region still stands. The inhabitants of Ireland had to deal with the farmers coming up the west to Galway, but it does not look like they ever penetrated beyond the runic field systems and there is evidence their deforestation eventually destroyed the viability of the land.

            So did the Celtic culture originate out of Ireland, or did Ireland adopt the Celtic culture and language? The symbols at Newgrange would point to the former. As does the DNA evidence. If the language came to Ireland one would expect some geographical objects to have incomprehensible names unless the entire native population was replaced, given there was never a Celtic invasion how did that happen? It’s a puzzle.

            Evolutionary Biology is what I got my masters in and thanks to Sci-Hub I still have great access to journal articles. In this area the DNA evidence has long been far more accurate and superior to archaeological evidence. The discovery of fire for example, archaeologists insist it’s 1.25 mya at most, the DNA evidence of the reversal of sexual dimorphism in humans puts it at 2 mya and I know which one I credit as being more accurate.

            1. 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.

              1. The origin of the Celts is an interesting puzzle alright. Celts were not a homogenous genetic entity at all. It was a culture that spread beyond its borders and was adopted by others. Was that adoption through voluntary conversion, or was it leadership decapitation akin to the Norman invasion of Ireland but with a Tudor like requirement for adoption of the invader’s language and culture?

                The DNA evidence in Ireland indicates that the original PHGs that followed the reindeer herds north with the retreating ice 17kya to 13kya. Did those PHGs become the Celts? They were not wiped out by incoming farmers/pastoralists in the way American Natives were. Just this week there’s a report that the modern Lebanese are descendants of the Canaanites – who were supposedly wiped out by the Israelites. Is that how the Celts came to Ireland? It would explain the lack of a genetic legacy of an invader. Newgrange though, the iconography there is Celtic or proto-Celtic. The story of Tristan and Isolde in the Mabinogion refers to the invading army from Ireland wading across, but then being inundated by a sudden rising tide. Which is a bit tenuous to be granted but hints at an oral history that remembers the rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age.

                Did you see the San Jose finds that put human occupation of the Americas back to 120kya? Funny how what used to be a heresy suddenly becomes fact.

  3. 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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