This article by Stephen Oppenheimer was
originally published online at Prospect Magazine and brought to my
attention by Astero readers Dolores Totorica & Joseba Etxarri. It
is reproduced here in case it is inaccessible later. Neither NABO or the Basque Government is responsible for the following
content. For more information, email us at
According to this new publication, the British and Irish can trace their
ancestry to the Basques. Oxford professor Stephen Oppenheimer
argues that today's inhabitants of the British and Irish islands
actually came from the Basques of the Middle Ages.
The fact that the
British and the Irish both live on islands gives them a misleading sense
of security about their unique historical identities. But do we really
know who we are, where we come from and what defines the nature of our
genetic and cultural heritage? Who are and were the Scots, the Welsh,
the Irish and the English? And did the English really crush a glorious
has heard of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. And most of us are
the idea that the English are descended from Anglo-Saxons, who invaded
eastern England after the Romans left, while most of the people in the
rest of the British Isles derive from indigenous Celtic ancestors with a
sprinkling of Viking blood around the fringes.
Yet there is no agreement among historians or archaeologists on the
meaning of the words "Celtic" or "Anglo-Saxon." What is more, new
evidence from genetic analysis (see note below) indicates that the
Anglo-Saxons and Celts, to the extent that they can be defined
genetically, were both small immigrant minorities. 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.
The genetic evidence shows that three quarters of our ancestors came to
this corner of Europe as hunter-gatherers, between 15,000 and 7,500
years ago, after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke
away from the mainland and divided into islands. Our subsequent
separation from Europe has preserved a genetic time capsule of
southwestern Europe during the ice age, which we share most closely with
the former ice-age refuge in the Basque country. The first settlers were
unlikely to have spoken a Celtic language but possibly a tongue related
to the unique Basque language.
Another wave of immigration arrived during the Neolithic period, when
farming developed about 6,500 years ago. But the English still derive
most of their current gene pool from the same early Basque source as the
Irish, Welsh and Scots. These figures are at odds with the modern
perceptions of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ethnicity based on more recent
invasions. There were many later invasions, as well as less violent
immigrations, and each left a genetic signal, but no individual event
contributed much more than 5 per cent to our modern genetic mix.
Many myths about the Celts
Celtic languages and the people who brought them probably first arrived
during the Neolithic period. The regions we now regard as Celtic
heartlands actually had less immigration from the continent during this
time than England. Ireland, being to the west, has changed least since
the hunter-gatherer period and received fewer subsequent migrants (about
12 per cent of the population) than anywhere else. Wales and Cornwall
have received about 20 per cent, Scotland and its associated islands 30
per cent, while eastern and southern England, being nearer the
continent, has received one third of its population from outside over
the past 6,500 years. These estimates, set out in my book The Origins of
the British, come from tracing individual male gene lines from
continental Europe to the British Isles and dating each one (see box at
bottom of page).
If the Celts were not our main aboriginal stock, how do we explain the
wide historical distribution and influence of Celtic languages? There
are many examples of language change without significant population
replacement; even so, some people must have brought Celtic languages to
our isles. So where did they come from, and when?
The orthodox view of the origins of the Celts turns out to be an
archaeological myth left over from the 19th century. Over the past 200
years, a myth has grown up of the Celts as a vast, culturally
sophisticated but warlike people from central Europe, north of the Alps
and the Danube, who invaded most of Europe, including the British Isles,
during the iron age, around 300 BC.
Central Europe during the last millennium BC certainly was the time and
place of the exotic and fierce Hallstatt culture and, later, the La Tène
culture, with their prestigious, iron-age metal jewellery wrought with
intricately woven swirls. Hoards of such jewellery and weapons, some
fashioned in gold, have been dug up in Ireland, seeming to confirm
central Europe as the source of migration. The swirling style of
decoration is immortalised in such cultural icons as the Book of Kells,
the illuminated Irish manuscript (Trinity College, Dublin), and the
bronze Battersea shield (British Museum), evoking the western British
Isles as a surviving remnant of past Celtic glory. But unfortunately for
this orthodoxy, these artistic styles spread generally in Europe as
cultural fashions, often made locally. There is no evidence they came to
Britain and Ireland as part of an invasion.
Many archaeologists still hold this view of a grand iron-age Celtic
culture in the centre of the continent, which shrank to a western rump
after Roman times. It is also the basis of a strong sense of ethnic
identity that millions of members of the so-called Celtic diaspora hold.
But there is absolutely no evidence, linguistic, archaeological or
genetic, that identifies the Hallstatt or La Tène regions or cultures as
Celtic homelands. The notion derives from a mistake made by the
historian Herodotus 2,500 years ago when, in a passing remark about the
"Keltoi," he placed them at the source of the Danube, which he thought
was near the Pyrenees. Everything else about his description located the
Keltoi in the region of Iberia.
The late 19th-century French historian Marie Henri d'Arbois de
Jubainville decided that Herodotus had meant to place the Celtic
homeland in southern Germany. His idea has remained in the books ever
since, despite a mountain of other evidence that Celts derived from
southwestern Europe. For the idea of the south German "Empire of the
Celts" to survive as the orthodoxy for so long has required determined
misreading of texts by Caesar, Strabo, Livy and others. And the
well-recorded Celtic invasions of Italy across the French Alps from the
west in the 1st millennium BC have been systematically reinterpreted as
coming from Germany, across the Austrian Alps.
De Jubainville's Celtic myth has been deconstructed in two recent
sceptical publications: The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern
Invention by Simon James (1999), and The Celts: Origins, Myths and
Inventions by John Collis (2003). Nevertheless, the story lingers on in
standard texts and notably in The Celts, a Channel 4 documentary
broadcast in February. "Celt" is now a term that sceptics consider so
corrupted in the archaeological and popular literature that it is
This is too drastic a view. It is only the central European homeland
theory that is false. The connection between modern Celtic languages and
those spoken in southwest Europe during Roman times is clear and valid.
Caesar wrote that the Gauls living south of the Seine called themselves
Celts. That region, in particular Normandy, has the highest density of
ancient Celtic place-names and Celtic inscriptions in Europe. They are
common in the rest of southern France (excluding the formerly Basque
region of Gascony), Spain, Portugal and the British Isles. Conversely,
Celtic place-names are hard to find east of the Rhine in central Europe.
Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is
most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who
dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia, travelling along the north
coast of the Mediterranean to Italy, France, Spain and then up the
Atlantic coast to the British Isles. There is a dated archaeological
trail for this. My genetic analysis shows exact counterparts for this
trail both in the male Y chromosome and the maternally transmitted
mitochondrial DNA right up to Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the English
Further evidence for the Mediterranean origins of Celtic invaders is
preserved in medieval Gaelic literature. According to the orthodox
academic view of "iron-age Celtic invasions" from central Europe, Celtic
cultural history should start in the British Isles no earlier than 300
BC. Yet Irish legend tells us that all six of the cycles of invasion
came from the Mediterranean via Spain, during the late Neolithic to
bronze age, and were completed 3,700 years ago.
Anglo-Saxon ethnic cleansing?
The other myth I was taught at school, one which persists to this
day, is that the English are almost all descended from 5th-century
invaders, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from the Danish peninsula, who
wiped out the indigenous Celtic population of England.
The story originates with the clerical historians of the early dark
ages. Gildas (6th century AD) and Bede (7th century) tell of Saxons and
Angles invading over the 5th and 6th centuries. Gildas, in particular,
sprinkles his tale with "rivers of blood" descriptions of Saxon
massacres. And then there is the well-documented history of Anglian and
Saxon kingdoms covering England for 500 years before the Norman
But who were those Ancient Britons left in England to be slaughtered
when the legions left? The idea that the Celts were
eradicated—culturally, linguistically and genetically—by invading Angles
and Saxons derives from the idea of a previously uniformly Celtic
English landscape. But the presence in Roman England of some Celtic
personal and place-names doesn't mean that all ancient Britons were
Celts or Celtic-speaking.
The genocidal view was generated, like the Celtic myth, by historians
and archaeologists over the last 200 years. With the swing in academic
fashion against "migrationism" (seeing the spread of cultural influence
as dependent on significant migrations) over the past couple of decades,
archaeologists are now downplaying this story, although it remains a
strong underlying perspective in history books.
Some geneticists still cling to the genocide story. Research by several
genetics teams associated with University College London has
concentrated in recent years on proving the wipeout view on the basis of
similarities of male Y chromosome gene group frequency between Frisia/north
Germany and England. One of the London groups attracted press attention
in July by claiming that the close similarities were the result of
genocide followed by a social-sexual apartheid that enhanced Anglo-Saxon
reproductive success over Celtic.
The problem is that the English resemble in this way all the other
countries of northwest Europe as well as the Frisians and Germans. Using
the same method (principal components analysis, see note below), I have
found greater similarities of this kind between the southern English and
Belgians than the supposedly Anglo-Saxon homelands at the base of the
Danish peninsula. These different regions could not all have been
waiting their turn to commit genocide on the former Celtic population of
England. The most likely reason for the genetic similarities between
these neighbouring countries and England is that they all had similar
prehistoric settlement histories.
When I looked at exact gene type matches between the British Isles and
the continent, there were indeed specific matches between the
continental Anglo-Saxon homelands and England, but these amounted to
only 5 per cent of modern English male lines, rising to 15 per cent in
parts of Norfolk where the Angles first settled. There were no such
matches with Frisia, which tends to confirm a specific Anglo-Saxon event
since Frisia is closer to England, so would be expected to have more
When I examined dates of intrusive male gene lines to look for those
coming in from northwest Europe during the past 3,000 years, there was a
similarly low rate of immigration, by far the majority arriving in the
Neolithic period. The English maternal genetic record (mtDNA) is
consistent with this and contradicts the Anglo-Saxon wipeout story.
English females almost completely lack the characteristic Saxon mtDNA
marker type still found in the homeland of the Angles and Saxons. The
conclusion is that there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion, but of a minority
elite type, with no evidence of subsequent "sexual apartheid."
The orthodox view is that the entire population of the British Isles,
including England, was Celtic-speaking when Caesar invaded. But if that
were the case, a modest Anglo-Saxon invasion is unlikely to have swept
away all traces of Celtic language from the pre-existing population of
England. Yet there are only half a dozen Celtic words in English, the
rest being mainly Germanic, Norman or medieval Latin. One explanation is
that England was not mainly Celtic-speaking before the Anglo-Saxons.
Consider, for example, the near-total absence of Celtic inscriptions in
England (outside Cornwall), although they are abundant in Ireland,
Wales, Scotland and Brittany.
Who was here when the Romans came?
So who were the Britons inhabiting England at the time of the Roman
invasion? The history of pre-Roman coins in southern Britain reveals an
influence from Belgic Gaul. The tribes of England south of the Thames
and along the south coast during Caesar's time all had Belgic names or
affiliations. Caesar tells us that these large intrusive settlements had
replaced an earlier British population, which had retreated to the
hinterland of southeast England. The latter may have been the large
Celtic tribe, the Catuvellauni, situated in the home counties north of
the Thames. Tacitus reported that between Britain and Gaul "the language
differs but little."
The common language referred to by Tacitus was probably not Celtic, but
was similar to that spoken by the Belgae, who may have been a Germanic
people, as implied by Caesar. In other words, a Germanic-type language
could already have been indigenous to England at the time of the Roman
invasion. In support of this inference, there is some recent lexical
(vocabulary) evidence analysed by Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster and
continental colleagues. They found that the date of the split between
old English and continental Germanic languages goes much further back
than the dark ages, and that English may have been a separate, fourth
branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion.
Apart from the Belgian connection in the south, my analysis of the
genetic evidence also shows that there were major Scandinavian
incursions into northern and eastern Britain, from Shetland to Anglia,
during the Neolithic period and before the Romans. These are consistent
with the intense cultural interchanges across the North sea during the
Neolithic and bronze age. Early Anglian dialects, such as found in the
old English saga Beowulf, owe much of their vocabulary to Scandinavian
languages. This is consistent with the fact that Beowulf was set in
Denmark and Sweden and that the cultural affiliations of the early
Anglian kingdoms, such as found in the Sutton Hoo boat burial, derive
A picture thus emerges of the dark-ages invasions of England and
northeastern Britain as less like replacements than minority elite
additions, akin to earlier and larger Neolithic intrusions from the same
places. There were battles for dominance between chieftains, all of
Germanic origin, each invader sharing much culturally with their newly
conquered indigenous subjects.
So, based on the overall genetic perspective of the British, it seems
that Celts, Belgians, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans were
all immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers, who first
ventured into the empty, chilly lands so recently vacated by the great
Note: How does genetic tracking work?
The greatest advances in genetic tracing and measuring migrations
over the past two decades have used samples from living populations to
reconstruct the past. Such research goes back to the discovery of blood
groups, but our Y-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA are the most
fruitful markers to study since they do not get mixed up at each
generation. Study of mitochondrial DNA in the British goes back over a
decade, and from 2000 to 2003 London-based researchers established a
database of the geographically informative Y-chromosomes by systematic
sampling throughout the British Isles. Most of these samples were
collected from people living in small, long-established towns, whose
grandparents had also lived there.
Two alternative methods of analysis are used. In the British
Y-chromosome studies, the traditional approach of
principal components analysis
was used to compare similarities between whole sample populations. This
method reduces complexity of genetic analysis by averaging the variation
in frequencies of numerous genetic markers into a smaller number of
parcels—the principal components—of decreasing statistical importance.
The newer approach that I use, the
phylogeographic method, follows individual genes rather than
whole populations. The geographical distribution of individual gene
lines is analysed with respect to their position on a gene tree, to
reconstruct their origins, dates and routes of movement.