When most Americans think of Celts, they think of basketball players in Boston. Everyone else in the world knows that the Celts were an early tribal people who dominated the British Isles before the arrival of the Romans. Several hundred years later, the descendants of those Celts migrated to America from Scotland and Ireland in large numbers. Anthropologists estimate that around twenty percent of the American people today can trace their ancestral roots to Scots-Irish Celts, but adding in Celtic people from other places in Europe, the number of Americans with Celtic ancestors jumps to well over two- hundred million.
But where did the Celts come from? In the modern sense, they came from Spain, France, Northern Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Belgium — and Great Britain, of course.
The Celts were not the earliest human group to settle in Europe. That honor goes to the Sumerian people whose empire dominated the landmass beginning around 6,000 B.C. Both Sumerians and Celts emerged from the earlier human groups dating to around 10,000 B.C., following the last major ice age.
We refer to these post-ice age cultures as megalithic. Note that the term Megalithic refers to cultures using prehistoric monuments of large stone or rock; Mesolithic refers to people that emerged during the middle part of the stone age between the Paleolithic (old stone) and Neolithic (new stone) periods.
Megalithic cultures stretched from Ireland (note the oldest stone structures at Newgrange (3,200 to 3,500 years B.C.) to southern England (Stonehenge (2,500 years B.C.), to Egypt — the land of the pyramids (2,700 years B.C.) — and across South Central Europe where we find Celts dominating Hungary, eastern Austria, and the Balkans.
In search of fertile land by which to feed themselves, these early people migrated over lands now covered by the Aegean and Black Sea (which back then were small freshwater bodies of water) to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Some of these made their way into the southeast, where they flourished and created a city they named Sumer (present-day Iraq).
What prompted this migration was the melting of large glaciers that flooded the headwaters of the present-day Danube (Austria). Somewhere around 7,300 B.C., sea levels rose 150 feet. Two-thousand years later, sea levels had increased to the point where they flooded over the Dardanelles, depositing salt water into the Black Sea.
The natural occurrences separated Europe from the southern human groups and isolated the northern people, allowing them to develop independently. They formed new cultures and languages, including Greek and Etruscan-Roman, around the Mediterranean Sea and as Celts in the rest of Europe. By the time the Sumerian Empire broke down (4,000 years ago), the Minoans were creating their unique empire (3,000 years ago). What makes the Minoans significant was that they were the seagoing people who created settlements in the islands and coastal areas of the Mediterranean. Note: Sicilian-Maltese cultures may have pre-dated the Minoan by 2,000 years.
There are some who may credit Christopher Columbus with discovering America in 1492, but scientists now conclude the Minoans were mining copper along the shores of Lake Superior in North America around 3,000 B.C. — and may have also contributed to the megalithic settlements in Ireland. In time, these Minoans became Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Trojans.
Natural phenomena created these early cultures — and destroyed them, as well. The Minoans came to an end with a gargantuan volcanic explosion around 1,400 years B.C., which, given the size of its tsunami, may have killed millions of people living along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the subsequent period, Mycenean Greeks shared a root language with European Celts for a period of around 1,000. When the Celts brought Iron Age culture to Ireland and Scotland around 1,000 years B.C., the monuments already existed in Ireland and England, so one theory holds that the Celts inherited them from earlier cultures.
Interestingly, there is a split in language between the Mediterranean countries and the Celts in the rest of Europe. The country mostly in the middle of these two worlds is western and northwestern Spain, where Celtic languages are still spoken.
The first group with a culture and language identifiable as Celtic appeared in Switzerland, Austria, southern Germany, western Hungary, Croatia, and southeastern France around 2,000 years B.C. They were preceded by the megalithic culture (already discussed), which buried their dead in mound tombs. They are called the Urnfield Culture because they cremated their dead and buried remains in urns in flat graves. Given the period, this behavior was quite sophisticated.
The Hallstatt Celts
Anthropologists differentiate the Hallstatt people from the Urnfield by the content of their graves. Academics believe these latter people buried their notable citizens in mound tombs, often timbered and reminiscent of those found in Viking settlements. The artifacts reflect a common culture and a (likely) common language, as well. Note: These people were salt miners. The ancient word for salt is “hall.”
The La Tene Celts
We love the ancient Greeks because they left us with their keen insight into things that, up until then, no one gave much thought to. Around 550 B.C., Greek historians considered these people whom they called “Celtoi.” The Greeks thought they were related to Thracians but more war-like owing to the sophistication of their weapons. The Celtoi were thought to have overcome the people living in present-day Austria — and modern archeologists say there is a basis for thinking so. Researchers call them La Tene Celts because, by around 400 B.C., most of Europe north of the Mediterranean coast dominated everyone else. They were fierce warriors and boat-builders — and these were the people who terrorized the British Isles and sacked Rome at every opportunity.
By the time of the Punic Wars, Hallstatt-Iberian Celts had adopted the La Tene culture. In what is now Northwest Spain, Celts constructed tall, round stone towers on their city walls. They called themselves Castello’s (makers of castles), which gave them an exceptional defensive advantage over their attackers and made the conquest of Galicia Rome’s most difficult campaign.
When the Romans finally defeated Carthage and moved on to conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain), some Celts in Galicia went to the British Isles. Most, however, remained in Galicia because the Romans never quite succeeded in dominating them. Today, the dominant language in Galicia (and Portugal) is the Celtic-Galician tongue. In A.D. 410, Celts from Galicia (known as Visigoths) sacked Rome — sending a signal that Rome’s time had come to an end.
Celts, also known as Germanii, continued to dominate Central Europe until the arrival of the Huns — but even they could not exterminate the Celts in the Danube basin and eastern Austria. What they succeeded in doing, however, was inter-marry with them and absorb them into their armies, and used them in attacking Rome. When the king of the Huns, Attila, died, he left his kingdom to his four moronic sons, whose squabbling effectively destroyed Attila’s empire. Within a short time, Celt/Goth warlords reemerged and ran most of the remaining Huns out of Gaul.
The Slavs were a mixture of Celtic, Sarmatians, Scythians, Cimmerians, and Indo-Iranian peoples. They passed through but were not permitted to settle in most of Hungary and ended up settling in the Balkans. The primary settlers in Hungary, eastern Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and France were the Celts. After the fall of Rome, Europe (nearly) became Celtic again — a pathway destroyed by the Franks — another Germanii Celtic group that adopted Roman culture — including Christianity.
Next — The Franks
My lineage goes back to the Celts via Scotland, on my fathers side. My wile is German and Irish. My mothers is Cherokee Indian and Irish. Now Family search says I am a cousin to George Washington and Elvis Presly. I think I prefer to remain a Celt. In the end, we are all Americans, but it’s interesting to read of our beginnings. Good read Mustang.
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Thank you, Phil. One of the significant migration periods of the Scots to the American Colonies occurred after the Jacobean uprising in 1745. I think you would be amazed by the number of Scots who made that transition into NC, SC, and GA, TN. I don’t make many recommendations about television entertainment, but I will say that you might find one TV series interesting. It’s a bit of a stretch (as most good yarns are) and not something to watch with the kiddies, but the name is Outlander. I found it educational in more ways than one.
The origin of the term Scot is confusing, as it must be after 2,000 or so years when no one had a laptop. The “Late Latin” word Scotti does not correspond to a Latin or Gaelic term. Not everyone agrees, though. MacCoinnich asserted that the word Scotti came from the Gaelic “sgaothaich,” meaning crowd or horde. Aside: the best way to learn how to understand the Scots, particularly around Glasgow, is to drink as much scotch as they do. It opens a whole new world of communications. Other scholars argue that the word Scotti comes from Scuit, meaning “cut off.” Or in other words, a growing population of Irishmen was cut off from regular society because of their interest in raiding, killing, and pillaging. They certainly did play hell with the Picts, which are no more. So the Scots were very bad Irishmen who had to go to what is now Scotland and do some introspection.
Be well, Amigo.
I have watched some of the series on my “side load app called Cinema.” I found it interesting and besides the time travel, historically correct.
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Interesting and informative. I had no idea that the early celts were so widespread or divergent.
Our European travels have been an amazing journey — the lands of my ancestors, from the Basque territories of Aquitaine, over the Pyrenees and through the Basque country of Navarre, and then across to the Cathedral of Santiago, and beyond to what the Roman’s called the end of the earth … we were always astonished by the change in languages. Few, it seemed, spoke much Spanish in those northern areas. We encountered no lisps until Madrid-Seville-Granada-Malaga (where the descendants of the Amazigh still live). One restaurant owner in Cee explained that the Spanish government has taken the decision to reintroduce wolves to help control the population of deer and bears in those northern mountains. I don’t know what good wolves will do for the deer and bear populations (I saw only one brown bear in the wild), but I can pretty much guarantee to do that will have an impact on the pilgrim population.
Thanks for stopping by, Andy. Blessings to you all.
It’s all fascinating. I’m a Celtic, Saxon, and Germanic mutt…My mother had blue eyes and jet-black hair; her maiden name is Dowell. Records were destroyed long ago, but it appears that the name hails from either Scots, Scots-Irish, or Irish descent. But the clan books have it as a sept of MacDougal in Scotland. MacDougal means the dark stranger, a reference to the Nordic hordes. Now, of course, much of that is made up in Victorian times or so I’m told. Personally, I think they came over the sea early on as there are several Dowells in Maryland back in the 1700s, where her family is from. Just do not know which we are related to. Side note: As the family story goes, Jeb Stuart’s folks stole a family horse on his ride through Maryland to get around the Union Army of the Potomac. What’s interesting is the family love of bagpipes…
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Thank you, sir.
My wife and I attended the Edinburgh Tattoo in 2018 and ended up seated a few feet to the right of Prince Charles and Prince William. Our treat that year, though, was that the 2018 performance year was the work of the Royal Marine Band. Very special night and something we’ll remember until the day we check out of battalion supply.
My wife is Midland English with Irish ancestors. It’s hard to track down ancestors in Ireland as they weren’t much on keeping records until only recently. And in any case, who was it that said that Ireland’s number one export is Irish people? 🙂
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The Edinburgh Tattoo!! A family inspired dream for me as well!
Very interesting! Read it out loud to Mr. B. Likewise, I did not know the Celts had such a far flung reach. I am more familiar with the Vikings, and their travels from North America to Antioch, and they are a different crowd and much later. I guess they sort of all met up again in England. Remember the scene from Robin Hood where the evil sheriff gets a warning from the witch about danger from ‘animals from the north.’ He repeats ‘animals from the north? CELTS!’ Then the camera switches to horde of men in blue paint charging into battle.
So delighted you could attend the Tattoo! We went to highland games for years on the west coast, but it is just not the same in 100 degree heat. 🙂 When I want to soothe the dementia beast in my husband I look up the Edinburgh Tattoo and play it online for him.
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I am glad the pipes can soothe his breast. I do love the bagpipes, and there is a series of You Tube videos that you may both enjoy, “Celtic Women.” One of my favorites is Amazing Grace. I wonder if you both would enjoy one of the funniest books I have ever read, by George McDonald Fraser, titled “The General Danced ‘til Dawn.” Thank you for stopping by and commenting. “Celts” begins a series over a few weeks.
That’s a fabulous video. Looking into the book. “McDonald Fraser” eh?