Celtic speaking people may have migrated to Wales and England earlier than previously thought, DNA analysis suggests

23 Dec 2021 4 minutes Read
The iron age village reconstructed at Castell Henllys. Picture by Keith Ruffles (CC BY 3.0).

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.

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Y Cymro
Y Cymro
28 days ago

Seeing the island of Ireland, Britain & Europe were all fused together once and the land in-between now lost beneath the North Sea called Doggerland, and yes there’s a joke in that name but that’s for another day, I’m not wholly surprised that with migration languages can also can be introduced as well as technology, but this shouldn’t infer that the native people came with any wave. In Wales we have the oldest modern human ceremonial burial dated around 34,000 years at Paviland in the Gower. Where also the builders of Stonehenge and were the first farmers, although it should… Read more »

28 days ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

There is another analysis of some artefacts and possibly linguistic traits that suggest a migration from the western Iberian territory – Portugal & Galicia – via the Atlantic to Ireland with others dropping into Brittany, Cornwall and dear old Wales. Irish settlers then migrated onwards to West of Alba while Scandinavians who predated the Vikings drifted west across the north Sea into N.E Alba and further south along that coast – possibly later known as Picts. Wouldn’t worry about it too much. It’s the here, now and the future that should bother us. Some of the past may justify some… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
27 days ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Yes, I agree. And as said where we today travel across the land via roads, railways and traverse the sky on aeroplanes, Bronze Age man & woman used the sea to get from A to B. I think we were more advanced then but lost our way. If you look at the people of Northern Spain & Portugal , they look very like the Irish & Welsh where the Southern Portuguese & Spanish are more swarthy due to migration from North Africa with the Moors. I know it’s a little later in period , but it’s interesting to know why… Read more »

Last edited 27 days ago by Y Cymro
Cai Wogan Jones
Cai Wogan Jones
28 days ago

Referring to Wales and England in the Bronze Age is utterly crass. The London media loves to do this because it suggests a bogus connection to the barbarian peoples who arrived from continental Europe in the 6th century and the Celtic inhabitants of these isles.

j humphrys
j humphrys
28 days ago

I think of the Irish, never the east, as being very close to us.
Course, Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh also hints at a connection?

28 days ago

See Ross Broadstock,s book entitled Cymroglyphics. Yes the ancient language can be used to read hieroglyphics.No academic has yet to dismantle the findings and of course the establishment are mute about it. Check it out for yourselves before dismissing this comment.

Drew Beeman
Drew Beeman
26 days ago

I’ve seen some documentaries that argue that the Celtic languages originated in Wales and due to copper and tin found there in the bronze age, they prospered greatly and quickly. Then the language spread along trade routes, became a “trade” language due to it’s people being the richest and most abundant traders, and then Europe (at least western) became “Celtic”. Then regional dialects emerged, and in Spain the Q Celtic moved in in to Ireland then to Scotland from there. This theory seems very cymrycentric, but archeology might be pointing this direction. However this theory is not a popular one… Read more »

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