Pre-Celtic survivals in Britain

Just been reading Edward Rutherfurd’s huge roman fleuve titled Sarum, a novel covering the prehistory and history of the Salisbury/Stonehenge area of Britain from the upper Paleolithic until modern times, in the manner of a James Michener opus.

Each chapter covers a different period, and Rutherfurd suggests genetic and cultural continuity over a span of several thousand years. (A Paleolithic hunter composes an epic chant about the land he saw flooded at the end of the Ice Age, and it enters the mythology of the area, still sung millennia later. A long-lived “meme.”) Although it’s pure speculation, Rutherfurd traces unbroken lines of descent from Paleolithic hunters into Neolithic/Bronze Age, Celtic Iron Age/Roman, medieval, and modern Britons.

On p. 145, introducing the arrival of the Celts in Britain ca. 900-500 BC, he says

So my question is: What parts of Britain never had Celts? I can’t think of any. Lugdunum, Cornwall, Somerset, Cambria, Caledonia (with its Picts), Aquae Sulis, and Sorviolanum (Sarum/Salisbury)—these were all Celtic areas.

Cheddar Man was pre-Celtic, of course, and his DNA-verified descendants still live in the old stomping grounds (where is Cheddar, anyway? I suppose it was an area also inhabited by Celts who mingled with the earlier peoples instead of ethnic cleansing them, as the Celts were somewhat ethnic cleansed by the Saxons.) Apart from Cheddar Man, are there any population stocks that can be identified as pre-Celtic survivals?

Bonus question: Who were those pre-Celtic peoples? Have anthropologists connected any pre-Indo-European peoples of Europe with any known populations of today? The Basques/Iberians are the only candidates I can think of.

Professor Jeremy Adams of Southern Methodist University, from whom I learned of Sarum, also thinks it likely that there was cultural and genetic continuity from prehistoric Britain until our time; he draws direct parallels between the social/political/religious function of the old Long Barrows and the cathedrals of Christian times. (But he left out the Barrow-Wights. :eek: )


You likely want to start with Cavalli Sforza for a biological answer, although C-S pushes a number of conclusions which are… controversial and perhaps poorly supported in re populating Europe. Been a while since I read on this.

I believe the population of northern Scotland into at least Roman period is obscure. The term Picts was applied, but my impression is there is much confusioin and little clear evidence as to who they were.

Further, always keep in mind that it is dangerous to confuse biological and cultural questions. Celtic is a cultural and linguistic term.

I believe once more you are starting with a false supposition. That is the question is an either or one. Decembrist in its misunderstanding if I may.

One item I believe is clear from the as yet unclear historical inquiries in re genetic history is the idea of total displacement, the great volks wanderung of the 19th century is a deeply flawed and deceptive concept.

Acculturation, intermarriage, partial displacement are closer to the truth. (And are seen in differentiated histories by sex, male and female lineages show different histories

Nobody has any clear answers. While Basques are clearly a pre-IE survival linguistic survival. It does not follow they would be connected to Great Britain.

Depends on what one means by that.

Certainly the Picts/Cruithni, whoever they were exactly, seem to have originally been non-Indo-European linguistically. Here’s a link to an analysis of Pictish names:

It is also likely that some non-Celtic symbols of one sort or another were incorporated into Celtic culture in the islands. My copy of The Oxford History of Ireland sites Tara as being a prime example of this - Apparently it was an important cult centre from long before the Celts arrived and later turned it into the symbol of Irish overlordship. Certainly, however, the Picts were heavily Celticized by the time they entered history ( though in Scotland interpreters were cited in a meeting with a Pictish king on at least one occasion, this may just reflect the difference between the P-Celtic influenced Scottish Picts and Q-Celtic Gaels ).

In both Ireland and Britain they appeared to have been relictual, semi-assimilated populations in the northern ends of the islands - So the dynasty of Dal Fiatach and Dal Riata in eastern Ulster have been cited before as perhaps being “Pictish” in origin ( curious insomuch as it was the Dal Riata than founded, via colonies, the later kingdom of Dalriada in western Scotland, which eventually gained the throne of the united Pictish kingdom in Alba to create the nation of Scotland ). The later Picts in Scotland were divided into southern and northern kingdoms, mostly in eastern Scotland ( lowlands and southern uplands ) extending from Inverness to Perth, but excluding Brythonic Strathclyde in the southwest. They eventually were united under the southern line, which was the dominant power in Alba ( Scotland ) afterwards until the Scot Kenneth MacAlpin inherited the throne of Pictland ( both nations were under severe threat from the Vikings at the time and I imagine that MacAlpin, though a scion of what was often the lesser, vassal nation, represented a strong hand when other viable candidates were lacking and hence was accepted ). The MacDuff’s of Fife were apparently an old Pictish noble family that had the ceremonial honour of crowning the kings, first Picts, later Scots. The earliest Scottish kings seem to have used the titles Rex Albaniae or Rex Pictorum in preference to Rex Scotia, indicating who was considered more important in this union ( course Scotland stuck in the end ).

Not that any of that was necessarily all that helpful, but you know how it is once I get started :D.

  • Tamerlane

On a side note:

If you like Sarum, (one of my favorite books), you’d probably like Rutherfurd’s London.

Lucky thread, this. Both Collounsbury and Tamerlane promptly turned in erudite replies, one after the other. It doesn’t get any better than that. :slight_smile:

Um, I didn’t mean to imply connecting Basques with Britons. I see why you might have read it that way because I carelessly juxtaposed two different questions: one about Britain and one about (Continental) Europe.

Collounsbury, I would have tended to see things the way you described: everyone’s ancestry gets all mingled together over many centuries. I just asked this question because Rutherfurd’s assertion startled me: the idea that identifiable British populations are of pre-Celtic descent. I had never imagined such a thing, so I wanted to check exactly what he was talking about. Or if his assertion came from a certain non-buccal orifice.

Tamerlane, that is fascinating information. Go raibh maith agat! If you ever listen to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, check out Roger Waters performing “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.” I think his “Pict” impression is of the Q-Celtic-influenced variety you spoke of (though it’s hard to tell, a bit garbled).

Anyway, I remember hearing somewhere that there are place names in England thought to be survivals from the language(s) spoken before Celtic speakers entered Britain. (There you go, Collounsbury, I’m using “Celtic” in the proper sense as a language designation, not a racial one.) One of these pre-Celtic names being Avon, the river that runs through the Salisbury area. I suppose no Celtic etymology can be found for it, so it must be a pre-Celtic survival. Ding-dong! Does the Avon Lady have any inkling of the remote antiquity of her appellation?

Hydronyms like Avon are very valuable in linguistic archaeology; sometimes they are the only traces remaining of long-extinct languages. Here in Virginia, we got Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Chesapeake… At least some of Powhatan’s language was recorded before it became extinct. Unlike the pre-Indo-Europeans of Europe, where a few place names are all we have to go on. Sometimes I wonder about the languages that vanished before writing, that we’ll never know about … but words in surviving languages with no known etymology, could they have once been loanwords from unknown dead languages? This possibility haunts me…

Rutherfurd did not speak racially, to his credit. He traced certain inherited physical traits like long toes or stubby thumbs through the populations, as well as cultural memes. What’s fascinating is that any such continuity could have survived unbrokenly from the Stone Age into the present.

Ow! You really know how to hurt a guy! :frowning:

Understood, I went with that commentary to be clear as the Basques get tied to virtually anything by … interesting ‘theorists’.

It strikes me as ridiculous based on a misunderstanding of the evidence.

Now, there may be sub pops that with refined enough data show higher rates of variant genetic inputs suggesting (hard to know w/o x-refs) non-celtio heritage, but that is not quite the same thing.

Really? What’s the sourcing on this (curiousity, I have little background on this)?

I would be highly suspicious of “long toes” etc. types of ‘evidence’ – as we know from other contexts, multiple descent can produce simlar results. Unbroken is not a terribly good way to look at this.

Still, I think that you might find Cavalli Sforza’s work interesting although I do note the balance is … rather technical.


Unworthy comment, poor turn of phrase and meant only in a mildy jesting manner. Withdrawn.