Prehistoric settlement of the British Isles
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- For historical times, see Historical immigration to Great Britain.
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. 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.
Research into this prehistoric settlement 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 peacefully integrated. 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.
Thirty-two worked flints found in April 2003 at Pakefield on the Suffolk coast are evidence of the settlement of hominini in Britain from about 700,000 BC. A shinbone belonging to "Boxgrove Man", a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis found at Boxgrove Quarry, West Sussex, is the oldest human bone found in Britain, and has been dated at c. 480,000 BC. Evidence of Neanderthal occupation has been found at La Cotte de St Brelade in the island of Jersey dated to c. 250,000 BC. Neanderthals are thought to have appeared in the rest of Britain around 130,000 BC and become the dominant species until their disappearance from the archaeological record c. 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.
Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans) are believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago. They are known to have had a presence in the geographical region that was to become Great Britain by 33,000 years before present (BP) due to the discovery of the skeletal remains of the "Red Lady of Paviland". 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.
A chapter in The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain states that the Last Glacial Maximum "saw an almost complete depopulation of England, Germany and the northern half of France, starting around 23,000 years ago, with the possible exception of rare ephemeral incursions into the southern half of Germany". Humans probably returned to the region of the British/Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end. Eighty percent of the DNA of most Britons, according to modern research, has been passed down from a few thousand individuals who hunted in this region during the last Ice Age. Compared to this, subsequent migrations from mainland Europe had little genetic impact on the British.
Mesolithic and Neolithic
Around 14,000 BC, rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Great Britain, while around 5600 BC Great Britain became separated from continental Europe. Doggerland is a name given to a former landmass in the southern North Sea that connected Great Britain to mainland Europe, surviving as an island at Dogger Bank until about 5000 BC after gradually being flooded by rising sea levels. Doggerland was probably a rich human habitat in the Mesolithic period.
There have been several intermittent cold periods since the last ice age, the most severe were from about 12,800 to 11,500 years ago and from about 6200 BC to 5800 BC, although likely to have affected population numbers, some settlements seem to have survived during these periods. 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 but this now seems to have had only a minor effect on the isles. Christopher Smith has estimated the population of Britain around 9000 BC to be 1,100–1,200 people, in 8000 BC to be 1,200–2,400, in 7000 BC to be 2,500–5,000, and in 5000 BC to be 2,750–5,500. Francis Pryor estimates that by 4000 BC the population of Great Britain was around 100,000 while that of Ireland was some 40,000. For 2000 BC his estimates are 250,000 and 50,000.
Defined by a style of pottery from the 3rd millennium BC, found across most of Europe in archaeological 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 Beaker folk 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. However, it is generally accepted by archaeologists today that the Beaker people 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.
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Genetic studies regarding Y-DNA Haplogroup I-M284 have concluded that there was some Late Iron Age migration of Celtic La Tène people to Britain and then onto north-east Ireland. 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 immigrants could have installed themselves as a superstrate.
The arrival in Britain of cultural traits identified as Celtic 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. However, several archaeologists, including John Waddell, say that there must have been "Celtic presence"[clarification needed] in Britain already in the late Bronze Age, i.e. in mid 2nd millennium BC.[unreliable source?]
By about the 6th century AD (Sub-Roman Britain), most of the inhabitants of the British Isles were speaking Celtic languages of either the Goidelic or the Brythonic branch, leaving open the question of whether this had also been the case much earlier.
After Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, some Belgic people seem to have come to central southern Britain from the continent. Possibly because of this migration, the names of the tribes Parisi (in Eastern Yorkshire), Brigantes and Atrebates can be found both in Britain and on the continent. It has also been claimed that there were a tribe of Iverni in Ireland who spoke a Brythonic language.[by whom?]
In Ireland as in Great Britain, early Celtic influence is taken to correspond to the early Iron Age.[by whom?] The adoption of Celtic culture and language was likely a gradual transformation, brought on by cultural exchange with Celtic groups in Britain or southwest mainland Europe.
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An early example of an origin myth of Great Britain put forth in The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which was written in 1138, and claims to have been compiled from earlier material. As the book explains, the first inhabitants of Great Britain were a race of giants underneath Albion. The next inhabitants were Trojans under Brutus who landed at Totnes and defeated the giants. Brutus divides the island into Britain, ruled by himself, and Cornwall, ruled by Corineus. After the death of Brutus, Britain was divided into three parts (England, Scotland and Wales) ruled over by his three sons. The eldest, Locrinus, married Corineus' daughter, and, when the two younger sons died, the whole island was ruled by him and his 98 successors. They continued until the arrival of the Romans. After the latter's departure, the crown passed to Vortigern, who sought help from the Saxons in fighting against Constans. At a meeting with the Saxons, most of the British leaders were killed. King Arthur then led the fight against the Saxons, but the latter prevailed.
This account remained the standard view of the settlement of Great 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, Míl Espáine, or the Soldier of Hispania). According to the legend, the ultimate ancestor of the Gaels was a Scythian king[ambiguous] 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.
- Historical immigration to Great Britain
- Immigration to the United Kingdom since 1922
- British prehistory
- Genetic history of the British Isles
- Genetic history of Europe
- Atlantic Europe
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- The study headed by Dr Bradley was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Geneticists find Celtic links to Spain and Portugal