4 April 2009

Origins of the Celts

There is no doubt that the Celts occupy a central position in the history and prehistory of Europe. They spread through an extensive territory and their language and traditions have survived until today. Now, who were the Celts? Where did they come from? Several theories have been put forward to answer these questions. I will focus on two of them: the ‘traditional’ ones (e.g. Marija Gimbutas’ theory), and the recent proposals made by Mario Alinei and the Paleolithic Continuity Theory (PCT).

- It has traditionally been thought that the Celts emerged as a differentiated IE group in Central Europein the Late Bronze Age, i.e. at around 1,000 BC. Later, in connection with the expansion of the Iron Age Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, the Celts reached other European areas, where they settled.

- In the context of the PCT, the original territory of the Celts basically coincides with the areas where Celtic groups and languages were present at the beginning oh history, and in some cases even today: the British Isles, Belgium, and the Atlantic areas of France and Iberia (Portugal, Galicia, Cantabrian regions). Celtic languages were spoken in these areas from the Late Paleolithic or Mesolithic, and there was no relevant discontinuity until the times of the Romans. The expansion of Celtic elements, associated with metallurgy and other technical developments, took a west-east direction, and was carried out by intrusive elites rather than through massive migration.

What theory do I prefer? The answer is clear: I prefer the one proposed by the PCT. This will come as no surprise to the readers who are already familiar with this blog, as I have very often talked about the PCT in its various aspects and proposals. If you are new in Language Continuity, I think it’s a good idea to take a look at the posts under the “Continuity Theory” Label on the right, because this way you can have a better view on this. I won’t go into the details of the theory now, but at least I’ll try to give some reasons why I think its proposals about the Celts are reasonable.

First of all, and most importantly, I think that it is a question of common sense. According to the traditional view, the Celts emerged somewhere in Central Europe and then expanded from there to other areas, with the incredible result that they actually disappeared from their original homeland! This is really unheard of, or at least highly unusual. Following the traditional explanation, an area like Ireland, which is so clearly and deeply ‘Celtic’, is just a later settlement of those Celts who originated in Central Europe, where they had gathered a great amount of strength to start their European expansion. How is it possible that this ‘powerful’ Celtic core in Central Europe just vanished from history, whereas the Celtic element remained vigourously in the supposed ‘new’ areas? Does it make any sense to propose a framework where prehistoric peoples move from one place to another at incredible speed, or where entire populations decide to abandon their language and adopt a new one for reasons that are hard to believe, as if the supposed pre-IE populations were just dreaming of becoming IE? Obviously, this explanation is constrained by the traditional chronology of IE, which sees the origin of PIE (proto-Indo-European) at about 4,000 BC. This leaves a very short stretch of time to offer a plausible explanation of the Celtic ‘mystery’, and fosters the invention of unrealistic stories like the ones mentioned above. The PCT, with its new chronology for PIE, is not limited by such constraints.

Apart from these general considerations, there are also significant data, from a variety of sources, pointing in the direction of a continuity of Celtic elements in the Atlantic ‘façade’ of Europe. If we analyse the evidence from archaeology or population genetics, there is nothing suggesting any kind of relevant discontinuity caused by the arrival of exogenous elements. A very clear exposition of this theory can be found in a recent article by Mario Alinei and Francesco Benozzo (2008): Megalithism as a manifestation of an Atlantic Celtic primacy in Meso-Neolithic Europe (you can also find it in Italian, here, and in Portuguese, here). In this article, which I strongly recommend, the authors offer an innovative analysis of megalithism in the framework of the Continuity Theory. The oldest megaliths (5th millennium BC) were erected in Brittany, on the French Atlantic coast, and in the following centuries they spread to other Atlantic areas, especially those connected with the Celts, and later to other areas, e.g. in the Mediterranean. Menhirs and dolmens can be found in the Isle of Man, in Galicia and in any other corner of the Celtic world; they all seem to echo the maritime context which gave birth to the Celts in prehistory. It is curious, for example, that the higher distribution of megaliths in Britain corresponds to the Celtic speaking areas of the north and west, especially in Wales and Scotland, whereas in central and eastern parts of England megaliths are much less common. On the other hand, the magico-religious and linguistic elements associated with megaliths suggest an uninterrupted continuity which has even reached modern times.

Maybe some of the details of the theory need to be discussed or refined, but I think there is evidence to suggest that the people who built the first megaliths in western Europe were speakers of Celtic languages.

NOTE: the pictures have been taken from the Alinei-Benozzo article mentioned above.
- First picture: Dolmen at Forkhill, County Armagh, Ireland.
- Second picture: A megalith at Ysbyty Cynfyn, Wales.


Tomas Spevak said...

When were the Celtic languages as we know them today (Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Manx) grouped under the term Celtic? Were they in the oldest Roman sources called Celtic? Do Roman and Greek writers when speaking of Celts only mention the Celts in Central Europe? Were these Celts of Central Europe actually Celts as we would call them today? That is, did they speak Celtic languages as understood today?

Jesús Sanchis said...

You are asking interesting questions, Tomas. In recent years there have been some scholars, such as Cunliffe, Collis and Oppenheimer, apart from Renfrew, Alinei and Benozzo, asking themselves this type of questions, and coming up with some interesting new ideas about the issue. One example of these recent developments is the strong criticism, and rejection, of the 19th-century theory about the Central European origin of the Celts.