Prehistoric settlement of the British Isles: Wikis


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The British Isles have experienced a long history of migration from across Europe. Over the millennia successive waves of immigrants have come to the Isles, a process that is continuing today. The ancient migrations have mainly come via two routes: along the Atlantic coast and from Germany/Scandinavia. The main settlement came in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods; there is currently no strong evidence of a human paleolithic presence in Ireland.[1][2][3]

Modern humans first arrived in what would become the British Isles during the Palaeolithic before the Last Glacial Maximum, when the isles all formed part of the European landmass. Traditionally they were thought to have been followed by Neolithic farmers (5th millennium BC), Beaker people (3rd millennium BC), Celts (2nd/1st millennium BC), Belgae (1st millennium BC). Parts of the Islands became part of the Roman Empire (1st century BC) from which time there is an historic record of settlement in Britain.

Research into the prehistoric settlement of Great Britain and Ireland is controversial, with differences of opinion from many academic disciplines. There have been disputes over the sizes of the various immigrations, as well as to whether they were peaceful. Theories of the settlement of the isles have also varied with time. In the first millennium AD origin myths were created based on descent from Gods, while in the latter part of the second millennium the finds of archaeology allowed a view of the settlement pattern to be inferred from changes in artefacts. Since the 1990s the use of DNA has allowed this view to be refined.


Origin myths


The origin myth of Britain culminated in 'The History of the Kings of Britain' by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was written in 1138. It claims to have been written from earlier material. According to this, the first inhabitants of Britain were a race of giants under Albion. The next inhabitants were Greeks under Brutus who landed at Totnes and defeated the giants. After the death of Brutus the island was divided into three parts (England, Scotland and Wales) ruled over by his three sons. When the two younger sons died the whole island was ruled by the eldest, Locrinus, and his 98 successors. They continued until the arrival of the Romans. After the latter's departure the crown passed to Vortigern who seeks help from the Saxons in fighting against Constans. At a meeting with the Saxons, most of the British leaders are killed. Arthur afterwards leads the fight against the Saxons but the latter prevail.

This account remained the standard view of the settlement of Britain until Polydore Vergil wrote Anglica Historica, completed in 1513. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth's work has continued to provide inspiration to later writers of fiction.


The Irish equivalent of Geoffrey's History was the Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabála Érenn, compiled from earlier material in the late 11th century. It chronicles four mythical phases of immigration, with six invasions. The last of these was the invasion by the Gaels who came from the Iberian Peninsula; they were the sons of Mil (also known as Milesius or the Soldier of Hispania). According to the legend, the ultimate ancestor of the Gaels was a Scythian king from what is now eastern Ukraine, whose descendants settled in Hispania.

The Gaels defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, who inhabited Ireland and had themselves taken control from the Fir Bolg (banished to the Aran Islands) and the Fomorians (banished to Tory Island).

Thomas O'Rahilly re-interpreted the text, dating the Gaelic invasion to 100 BC.



Europe about 20,000 years ago, showing coastline, extent of Ice caps and regions where refugia are thought to have been situated. Coloured areas are the furthest extent of known human activity between 15 kya and 20 kya.      Solutrean and Proto Solutrean Cultures      Epi Gravettian Culture

There is archaeological evidence, thirty-two worked flints found in April 2003 at Pakefield on the Suffolk coast, of settlement of hominini in Britain from about 700,000 BC.[4] A shinbone found belonging to "Boxgrove Man", a member of species Homo heidelbergensis was found at Boxgrove Quarry, West Sussex is the oldest human remains found in Britain and has been dated at circa 480,000 BC. Neanderthal man is thought to have appeared in Britain around 130,000 BC and become the dominant species until their disappearance from archaeological record circa 30,000 BC. A skull found in Swanscombe in Kent and teeth found at Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire are examples of remains found with distinct Neanderthal features [5].

Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans) are believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago.[6] They are known to have had a presence in the geographical region that was to become Great Britain by 29,000 years ago due to the discovery of the skeletal remains of the "Red Lady of Paviland".[7] This is actually the skeleton (lacking the skull) of a young man of the Aurignacian culture, and may be the oldest modern human remains yet discovered in Great Britain and Ireland.[8]

During the following Ice Age (known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)) around 20,000 years ago Northern Europe may have been completely depopulated of humans. Humans probably returned to the region of the British and Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end, after an absence of about 5,000 years.[9]


Around 9500 BC rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Britain, while around 6500 BC the latter became separated from continental Europe. There was a lesser cold period from about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago but settlement seems to have continued in this period. During the Mesolithic period there was a miniaturisation of the flint artefacts, which has been attributed to differences in the prey of the hunters. This change in artefacts was at one time attributed to the arrival of a new people. About 4000 BC the "Neolithic Revolution" reached Britain and Ireland, with domestication of animals, arable farming and pottery. Again a new invasion was postulated. A population "wave of advance" was proposed [10] but this now seems to have had only a minor effect on the isles. Christopher Smith has estimated the population of Britain (excluding Ireland) around 9000 BC to be 1100-1200 people, in 8000 BC to be 1200-2400, in 7000 BC to be 2500-5000, and in 5000 BC to be 2750-5500. Francis Pryor estimates that by 4000 BC the population of Britain was around 100,000 while that of Ireland was some 40,000. For 2000 BC his estimates are 250,000 and 50,000.

The Beaker people

Defined by a style of pottery from the 3rd millennium BC, found across most of Europe in archæological digs, the Beaker people have been considered to represent early immigration to the British Isles during the Bronze Age.

It was originally thought that there were settlers that came with these beakers who also had other defining features that showed that they were distinct from earlier dwellers of the British Isles, such as the development of metalworking and the mode of burial of the dead that came into use at about this time. Analyses of the uptake of isotopes of the element strontium in teeth (younger) and bones (older) in individuals have found evidence of a great deal of mobility, particularly of females, within central and western Europe.[11] However, it is generally accepted by archaeologists today that the beakers and other artefacts found across Europe that are attributed to the Beaker people may also be indicative of the development of particular manufacturing skills that spread independently of any population movement, possibly by the influence of neighbouring peoples, rather than as a result of mass migrations.[11]

Celtic settlement

The Celts are a number of interrelated peoples in Europe, sharing a branch of the Indo-European languages indicative of a common origin in a Proto-Celtic language.

Linguists have been arguing for many years whether a Celtic language came to Britain and Ireland and then split or whether there were two separate "invasions". The older view of prehistorians was that the Celtic influence in the British Isles was the result of successive invasions from the European continent by diverse Celtic-speaking peoples over the course of several centuries, accounting for the P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic isogloss. This view is now generally discredited in favour of a phylogenetic Insular Celtic dialect group.

Celtic arrival in Britain is usually taken to correspond to Hallstatt influence and the appearance of chariot burials in what is now England from about the 6th century BC. Some Iron Age migration does seem to have occurred but the nature of the interactions with the indigenous populations of the isles is unknown. In the late Iron Age Pryor estimates that the population of Britain and Ireland was between 1 and 1.5 million, upon which a smaller number of Celtic-speaking immigrant populations would have installed themseleves as a superstrate.

By ca. the 6th century (Sub-Roman Britain), most of the inhabitants of the Isles were speaking Celtic languages of either the Goidelic or the Brythonic branch.

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, some Belgic people seem to have come to central southern Britain. Though there was a tribe called Parisi in eastern Yorkshire, these were probably a British people with cultural links to the continent. It has been claimed that there were a tribe of Iverni in Ireland who spoke a Brythonic language.

In Ireland as in Great Britain, beginning Celtic influence is taken to correspond to the beginning Iron Age. The adoption of Celtic culture and language likely a gradual transformation, brought on by cultural exchange with Celtic groups in the mainland or otherwise southwest continental Europe.

The Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly proposed a model of Irish prehistory, based on his study of the influences on the Irish language and a critical analysis of Irish mythology and pseudohistory. He distinguishes four separate waves of Celtic immigration to Ireland:

  • The Cruithne or Priteni (c. 700 - 500 BC)
  • The Builg or Érainn (c. 500 BC)
  • The Lagin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin (c. 300 BC)
  • The Goidels or Gael (c. 100 BC)

Historic settlement

For the historic settlement of the British Isles see:

See also


  1. ^ p8, Richard Bradley The prehistory of Britain and Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 0521848113
  2. ^
  3. ^ Flint hints at existence of Palaeolithic man in Ireland. Times Online, July 2008.
  4. ^ British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2006, Issue86
  5. ^ A History of Britain, Richard Dargie (2007), p. 8-9
  6. ^ Stringer (2006), p. 185
  7. ^ [1], accessed August 3, 2008
  8. ^ though there are other contenders. Ancient jaw bone raises questions over early man from ArchaeoNews. 24 April 2005. Retrieved 20 February 2007.
  9. ^ Mithen (2003), p.120
  10. ^ see Renfrew, 1987
  11. ^ a b Pollard, A. M.; et al. (2007). Analytical Chemistry in Archaeology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 190. ISBN 0521655722. Retrieved 2008-09-21.  


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