We are not quite who we think we are…

It seems the classic emnity between the Saxons and Celts has no certain ground in history… Stephen Oppenheimer argues that “neither group had much more impact on the British Isles gene pool than the Vikings, the Normans or, indeed, immigrants of the past 50 years”.

  • Little Eva

    This has been floating about for quite a while, good to see it being aired here. I really love the idea of all our ingrained assumptions about ourselves and each other being shown to be crap.

  • Pete Baker

    What’s this ‘we’ business? ;p

    btw, it’s also why there is no Celtic section in the National Museum of Ireland.

  • Brian Boru

    I agree with the thesis that the native Irish, while historically having a Celtic languag before English, may not actually be Celts. DNA evidence traditionally shows us to be descended from the first inhabitants of the island. I understand 78% of men are of this descent, from a Trinity College study some years ago by Dr.Daniel Bradley and Emmeline Hill. Intriguingly they found a rough correlation between Gaelic surnames and the relevant DNA, except with supposed Norman/Viking surnames, where the correlation was 83% – possibly due to Normanisation or Anglicisation of native Gaelic names. Among those with Scottish surnames the correlation was 52.9%, and 62% among people with “English-sounding” surnames. I would expect that a NI study would find a lot more English/Scottish DNA because of the Plantation of Ulster.

    Regarding this specific study that is the basis for this thread however, I would argue that we would need a clearer picture of the scale of this study. I recall a BBC series called “Blood of the Vikings” some years ago (I think it can still be watched online) which showed clear differences between Southern Irish DNA and that found in most of England – the latter supposedly being Anglo-Saxon DNA – in turn largely indistinguishable from Danish DNA. At the moment I still believe that the pre-Dark Age population of England was culturally Celtic, though I am prepared to re-evaluated my view on this with more detailed info. It is clear however that Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Scots Gaelic are Celtic languages.

  • Brian Boru

    ” I understand 78% of men are of this descent, from a Trinity College study some years ago by Dr.Daniel Bradley and Emmeline Hill.”

    In Southern Ireland I mean where I am pretty sure the study was carried out.

  • DK

    May not be much impact on the gene-pool, but plenty on the meme-pool (meme = ideas/culture for those not familiar with term).

    You could compare with Tunisia. Like England, invaded at the fall of the Western Roman Empire by a Germanic tribe (Vandals) and do the locals look Germanic? Not at all.

  • Greenflag

    There is nothing ‘new’ in what Oppenheimer is saying apart of course from the fact that nowadays anthropologists are honing in on the truth with more detail than they could in say the 1930’s the heyday of the thinking that racial/ethnic /cultural difference and ancestry /religion were the most significant factors in determining the obvious material differences between the rest of the world and the ‘white west ‘ and within the latter the differences between countries .

    It was believed by some anthroplogists in the mid 20th century (Coon , Ripley etc) that the majority of the British and Irish people were descended from Celtic Iron Age invaders and that the rest of the population was made up of the descendants of Upper Paleolithic hunter gatherers , Neolithic farmers , Romans , Vikings , Anglo Saxons , Normans etc . The differences between the four countries of England , Ireland , Scotland and Wales was deemed to be the differing degree of influence of each of the above minority groups in each country .

    Today’s DNA anthropologists seem to be coming to the same general conclusion IF you exchange the majority base from Celtic Iron Age invader to Upper Paleolithic (hunter gatherer)?

    We do not know what languages the Upper Paleolithic or Neolithic peoples spoke . It is assumed that the Basque language would be close but there is no proof of that . In any event the Basque people as they are today are not noticeably Upper Paleolithic in descent or physical appearance assuming they ever were ?

    At one time it was believed that the Indo Europeans (the so called ancestors of Germans, Celts , Slavs and Meditteranean peoples and cultures/languages) largely replaced the earliest Europeans . The DNA evidence now seems to indicate that in Western Europe (including Ireland , England , Spain ,Germany etc ) less than 20% can trace their DNA to areas east of the Bosporus the assumed starting point for the Neolithic farming peoples invasion . It seems that the indigenous descendants of the earliest hunter gatherers survived and adapted quickly to farming and their ancient non indo european languages were replaced by and mixed with the newer languages .

    No doubt future research may yet provide more data on where we all come from ?

    I’d say a more interesting question is where we are all going 🙂

    There is just one human race anyway and if you could trace your own direct parental ancestry back 2,000 years you would have some 16 billion people in your direct line . More than double the worlds population in 2006 . A good job for you and I thast they all managed to copulate to the exact nano second that they did over those 2,000 years otherwise you or I would not be here .

    For those who take inordinate pride in their ancestry being either celtic , anglo saxon , norman ,viking etc etc it may be ‘humbling’ to have to accept that the likelihood is that the vast majority of the people in your direct ancestry would have no idea of who those peoples were .

  • Simon Stainsby

    I can’t resist a comment.

    As I recall, neither the Britons nor the Romans ever used the term Celt to describe the people of these islands. The term ‘celt’ was made popular just a few hundred years ago as part of the union propaganda and it still works today. Indeed p-celt and q-celt are very different languages in terms of syntax. An analogy might be for the people of Scotland to describe themselves as English because that is their mother tongue now!

    One interesting thing regarding ancestry that I have noticed. Many, if not most English are now full of blood from Irish/Scottish ancestors, so DNA might not be much use for showing what happened a long time ago around here.

  • DavidD

    I think re-partition is the answer Greenflag. Seriously though, your points are well made. The sub-stratum of the population, according to DNA, is very ancient in both Britain and Ireland. The only differences are the level of settlement by various later immigrants (pre-Celts, Celts, Saxons, Vikings, Normans etc.). The one point where I would query Oppenheimer’s analysis is in his assertion that the population of pre-Saxon England was not Celtic speaking. It is accepted that the Belgae of south-east Britain were at least partly Germanic in origin and, I suppose there COULD have been other non-Celtic speaking people in eastern England. But if this were true then where are the traces either in language or place names? Such non-Saxon words/place-names all appear to be Celtic.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The one point where I would query Oppenheimer’s analysis is in his assertion that the population of pre-Saxon England was not Celtic speaking.’

    I don’t think he’s saying quite that just not entirely celtic speaking which to me sounds plausible .

    We know that there were other languages in Ireland before the arrival of Irish . This is accepted by linguists who note that although Irish is a Celtic language it does show some influences of presumably pre celtic language/languages . Pictish may also have been a pre celtic language. There is no reason why such pre celtic languages could not also have survived up to early Roman times in England ? Pictish survived in Scotland into the 8th century or a little later . And because it was never a written language we have no idea what it looked or sounded like which is a shame . The same would be true of any pre celtic non indo european language in England . Irish , Welsh and Scots Gaelic have survived because these languages were written down .

    As for Oppenheimers remarks about Basque pioneers being the first to mark the land after the Ice Sheets melted back north. it sounds good , but we don’t know what the first people who colonised Britain or Ireland called themselves(unless you believe the mythologists) but it probably was’nt Basque not in the modern sense anyway . The people/peoples who lived along the southern ridge of the ice sheet across europe, would have lived in small groups /tribes of hunter gatherers the Pyrenees to the Ukraine. No doubt they may have all originated from one tribe c 50,000 BC somewhere further south or east but by the time of the last retreat of the ice sheet there would probably have been hundreds of non indo european languages being spoken. across ice free europe and one of them would have been ancestral to modern Basque. Some of those languages spoken by small groups of people could have made their way to Britain and Ireland by sea and survived in isolation . As the neolithic period advanced people speaking a form or forms of Celtic in central Europe would have experienced economic and population growth far in excess of what the hunter gatherer populations could . Circa 500 BC Roman history tells us that there was a huge population movement in central europe (called Celts ) who started to move west , east and south across europe . It’s probable that these were the people who brought Irish to Ireland etc . It would not have been an invasion as such merely people crossing to the island in small groups over hundreds of years . They would have been in a strong position for their ‘celtic’ language to become the lingua franca particularly if there were several languages being spoken on the island/islands at that time .

    Historians tell us that the Bronze Age in Ireland was long and prosperous (over a thousand years ) We have no idea what language /languages these people spoke but decline appears to have set in in the 12th century BC following a mini Ice age or no growth period of 20 years according to Professor Baillie -dendrochologist -of Queen’s University Belfast. Many people may have left the island at that time and headed east or south for escape from the long winter . That would have left the country presumably open for the gradual influx of later Celtic speaking peoples from Britain and/or the continent and probably both ?

    Conjecture perhaps ? Just look at how many people have wandered into Ireland and England from further afield in the past decade .

  • PaddyReilly

    Interestingly there is one word of the Basque substratum which has made its way into Modern Irish. Basque andera ‘a lady’ corresponds to Irish ainnéar ‘a beautiful woman’. However, the Welsh anner means a heifer.

  • Pondskater

    One part of this article is obviously dodgy – claiming that the lack of Celtic inscriptions in England suggests that Germanic was spoken there. Large parts of south-east England were probably already Latin-speaking by the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and the Celts are documented in Northumbria (the Gododdin), Cumbria (cf. Cambria), and western England. Welsh is still classed as endangered today around Oswestry in Shropshire.

  • andy

    I had heard that Basque has more in common with indigenous south-american languages than european ones.
    I’m not a linguist but I think it was to do with the use of the letter “X”, and the way they say the words for 1,2,3.
    (I would imagine there was more to it than that but that was all my feeble brain could understand)

  • Greenflag


    ‘Basque andera ‘a lady’ corresponds to Irish ainnéar ‘a beautiful woman’. However, the Welsh anner means a heifer. ‘

    Now there’s no denying Kitty
    Is remarkably pretty
    Though I can’t say the same for Jane
    But is there the differ of the price of an anner (heifer)

    Between the ainnear (pretty) and the andera (plain)

    With apologies to Percy French 🙂


    There have been many attempts to link Basque with other languages , even with the language of the Ainu people of Northern Japan . I read a fairly convincing article on the web about this connection only to discover later that the author was less than reliable ?

    There is a language spoken in the highlands of Pakistan (Burushaski ?) which also seems to have no linguistic connection between it and it’s neighbours and may be a relative of Basque ?

    Regardless of the linguistic difference the Basque people share most of their genetic traits with their fellow Iberians. They are unique in linguistic terms. Read the Basque World (sorry can’t remember the author) for a history of these interesting people .

  • DavidD

    Pondskater. I suspect that you are correct in saying that the urban areas of at least southeast Britain were speaking some Latin-derived patios by the 5th century. However, probably for natural reasons (epidemics, famine whatever) the towns became de-populated about this time. The rural areas of the south were however certainly Celtic-speaking, as we know from the fact that the refugees/settlers to Brittany spoke a language akin to Cornish.
    Greenflag. You are rather harsh on Coon. He was writing without any knowledge of DNA and before the discovery of much valuable skeletal and archaeological evidence. He certainly identified the important contribution of Upper Palaeolithic survivors to the population of Britain and Ireland especially the west of Ireland. Where he errs is in ascribing the majority source of north and east Britain and eastern Ireland populations to ‘Iron-age Celts’. This is wrong on two counts. First this element is probably less significant than the earlier survivals and second the group he describes were neither from a period as late as the Iron-age nor were they Celtic speaking.

  • andy

    hi – thanks for that. Do you mean “Basque history of the world”? Its by a Mark Kalansky.
    I have been meaning to buy it for a while. Will prob get it this weekend.

  • Greenflag

    That’s the one Andy – It’s a good read. You can probably get it in your local library too .

  • Greenflag


    ‘You are rather harsh on Coon.’

    Not my intention .As I said above if you substituted Coon’s majority Iron Age Kelt being the population element from which most people nowadays are descended , with the earlier Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic elements being the ancestors of most of the present population -you probably would not be far wrong .

    I’m no expert and I know that much of what Coon thought was fact has been proven wrong due to modern research methods . So I guess we’ll all have to wait until the ‘experts’ do enough studies on larger populations to find the ‘truth ‘

    I expect that in the not too distant future given the new methodologies and science at their disposal the experts will soon be able to trace the actual time map and movement of all the peoples and their descendants from the time that humans left Africa some 150,000 years ago ?

    Fascinating subject and just proves that the there is only one human race and that the differences between us arise from environmental and cultural changes and adaptation to local environment and climate as well as other factors .

    On my mothers side we can trace the mitochondrial DNA to south western France circa 28,000 BC . Wonder what language they spoke ? Not Irish or English or French anyway . Basque ? Possibly or a near relative of Basque ? But I don’t look anything like a Basque .

    I guess in 30,000 years a lot can change ?