Celtic speaking people may have migrated to Wales and England earlier than previously thought, DNA analysis suggests
People speaking the languages that eventually became Welsh and other Celtic languages may have migrated to Wales and England some time in the Bronze age between 1000 and 850 BC, new DNA analysis as suggested.
It had previously been argued that the Celtic languages came to Britain in the Iron Age, but the evidence now suggests an earlier appearance.
People living in England and Wales in the late Bronze Age had more ancestry from Early European Farmers than people in early Bronze Age Britain did, suggesting a migration from Europe may have occurred around that time, scientists said.
Since population movement often drives linguistic change, the new DNA evidence significantly strengthens the case for the appearance of Celtic languages in Britain in the Bronze Age.
Conversely, the study shows little evidence for large-scale movements of people into Britain during the subsequent Iron Age, which has previously been thought of as the period during which Celtic languages may have spread.
Professor David Reich, from Harvard Medical School, said: “These findings do not settle the question of the origin of Celtic languages into Britain. However, any reasonable scholar needs to adjust their best guesses about what occurred based on these findings.
“Our results militate against an Iron Age spread of Celtic languages into Britain – the popular ‘Celtic from the East’ hypothesis – and increase the likelihood of a Late Bronze Age arrival from France, a rarely discussed scenario called ‘Celtic from the Centre’.”
But this was no conquest: The combined DNA and archaeological evidence suggests that, rather than a violent invasion or a single migratory event, the genetic structure of the population changed through sustained contacts between mainland Britain and Europe over several centuries, such as the movement of traders, intermarriage, and small scale movements of family groups.
The analysis was done by sequencing the genomes of near 800 people from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age whose remains were found at archaeological sites in Britain and in western and central Europe.
‘Spectrum of society’
Lead researcher Ian Armit at the University of York said that this period of the middle and late Bronze Age was a period of tremendous connectivity between Britain and central and western Europe.
“Prior to this study, we would have thought of the movement in terms of individuals and small groups, traders and [people looking for metal]. But the results show society was far more mobile than we thought – large sectors of society were on the move. Societies were very interconnected across the English Channel in a manner we hadn’t really appreciated before,” he said.
Some of the earliest genetic outliers have been found in Kent, suggesting that the south-east may have been a focus for movement into Britain. This resonates with previously published isotope evidence from archaeological sites like Cliffs End Farm, where some individuals were shown to have spent their childhoods on the Continent.
The researchers say the origin of these migrants cannot yet be established with certainty, but they are most likely to have come from communities in and around present-day France.
The Middle to Late Bronze Age was a time when settled farming communities expanded across the landscapes of southern Britain, and extensive trade routes developed to allow the movement of metal ores for the production of bronze.
These new networks linked wide-ranging regions across Europe, as seen from the spread of bronze objects and raw materials.
“While we may once have thought that long-distance mobility was restricted to a few individuals, such as traders or small bands of warriors, this new DNA evidence shows that considerable numbers of people were moving, across the whole spectrum of society,” Ian Armit said.
The study ‘Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age’ is published in Nature.