Prehistoric settlement of the British Isles

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History of the British Isles
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The British Isles have experienced a long history of migration from Europe. The ancient migrations have come via two routes: along the Atlantic coast and from GermanyScandinavia. The first settlements came in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. The earliest evidence of human presence in Ireland is dated to 10,500 BC.[1][2][3]

Research into this prehistoric settlement is controversial, with differences of opinion in many academic disciplines. There have been disputes over the sizes of the migrations and whether they were peaceful. 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.

Pre-Homo sapiens sapiens[edit]

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. The Thames was a minor river that joined the Rhine, in the southern North Sea basin at this time.
  Solutrean and Proto Solutrean Cultures
  Epi Gravettian Culture

In May 2013, fossilized human footprints were found in newly uncovered sediment on a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk. These Happisburgh footprints were dated to at least 800,000 years ago, the early Pleistocene. 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.[4] 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 Homo neanderthalensis occupation has been found at La Cotte de St Brelade in the island of Jersey dated to c. 250,000 BC.[5] Neanderthals are thought to have appeared in the rest of Britain around 130,000 BC and became the dominant species until their disappearance from the archaeological record c. 40,000 years ago.[6] A skull found in Swanscombe in Kent and teeth found at Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire are examples of remains found with distinct Neanderthal features.[7]

Stone Age[edit]

Upper Palaeolithic[edit]

Cro-Magnons (the first anatomically modern humans in Europe) are believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago.[8] 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".[9] 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.[10]

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".[11] Humans probably returned to the region of the British/Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end.[12] 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 after the last Ice Age. Compared to this, subsequent migrations from mainland Europe had less genetic impact on the British.[13]

Around 14,000 BC, rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Great Britain. An abrupt cold spell in Northern Europe known as the Younger Dryas, which occurred between 10,900 BC and 9700 BC, may have depopulated Ireland.[14][15]

Mesolithic and Neolithic[edit]

Around 5,600 BC, continuing rises in sea level led Great Britain to become separated from continental Europe.[16] 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 5,000 BC after gradually being flooded by rising sea levels.[17] Doggerland was probably a rich human habitat in the Mesolithic period.[18]

There have been several cold periods since the last ice age; the most severe were from about 12,800 to 11,500 years ago (Younger Dryas) and 6,200–5,800 BC (the "8.2 kilo year event"). Although these events are likely to have adversely affected population numbers, some settlements seem to have survived. During the Mesolithic period, there was a miniaturisation of 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 4,000 BC, the Neolithic Revolution reached Britain and Ireland, with domestication of animals, arable farming and pottery. Agriculture was introduced to Europe and then Britain through the migration of Neolithic farmers from the Middle East.[19] Genetic studies show that they had a significant impact on the Y-DNA of European males, the majority of whom have lineage tracing back to Middle-Eastern farmers during the Neolithic expansion. In contrast, the mtDNA of most European females trace back to earlier hunter-gatherers predating the Neolithic expansion.[20]

A low estimate for the population of Britain around 9,000 BC is 1,100–1,200 people; in 8,000 BC, 1,200–2,400; in 7,000 BC, 2,500–5,000; and in 5,000 BC, 2,750–5,500. Another method gives a much higher estimate so that, by 4,000 BC, the population of Great Britain was around 100,000, while that of Ireland was some 40,000. By 2,000 BC, Great Britain and Ireland had populations around 250,000 and 50,000, respectively.

Bronze Age[edit]

Defined by a style of pottery from the 3rd millennium BC, found in 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.[21] It is generally accepted by archaeologists today that the spread of the artefacts of the Beaker people may be more indicative of the development of particular manufacturing skills that spread independent of population movement, rather than the migrations of particular peoples.[21]

Iron Age[edit]

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 (British Iron Age).

A number of archaeologists, including John Waddell, propose that there may have been a "Celtic presence"[clarification needed] in Britain already in the late Bronze Age, i.e. in mid 2nd millennium BC.[22]

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.[23] 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.

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, some Belgic people seem to have come to central southern Britain from the continent.[24][25][26][27][28][29][30][31] 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.[32] It has also been claimed that there were a tribe of Iverni in Ireland who spoke a Brythonic language.[by whom?]

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.

Origin myths[edit]

Great Britain[edit]

An early example of an origin myth of Great Britain was put forth in Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1138) purported to have been compiled from earlier material. In the book, 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 him and Cornwall, ruled by Corineus. After the death of Brutus, Britain was divided into England, Scotland and Wales, ruled over by his three sons. The eldest, Locrinus, married Corineus' daughter and when the two younger sons died, the island was ruled by him and his 98 successors. They continued until the arrival of the Romans and after their 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. Geoffrey of Monmouth's work has provided inspiration to 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Bradley, Richard (2007). The prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-521-84811-3. 
  3. ^ Norman Hammond. "Flint hints at existence of Palaeolithic man in Ireland". The Times, 27 July 2008.
  4. ^ "700,000 years old: found in Suffolk" British Archaeology. January/February 2006. Issue 86. ISSN 1357-4442.
  5. ^ "Ice Age Island". Jersey Heritage. 2012. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  6. ^ Higham, T.; et al. (2014). "The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance". Nature. 512 (7514): 306–309. PMID 25143113. doi:10.1038/nature13621. 
  7. ^ A History of Britain, Richard Dargie (2007), p. 8-9
  8. ^ Stringer (2006), p. 185
  9. ^ Richards, M. P.; Trinkaus, E. (September 2009). "Out of Africa: modern human origins special feature: isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106 (38): 16034–9. PMC 2752538Freely accessible. PMID 19706482. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903821106. 
  10. ^ though there are other contenders. Ancient jaw bone raises questions over early man from ArchaeoNews. 24 April 2005. Retrieved 20 February 2007.
  11. ^ Wil Roebroeks, Jean-Jacques Hublin & Katharine MacDonald (2010). "Continuities and Discontinuities in Neandertal Presence: A Closer Look at Northwestern Europe". In Nick Ashton; Simon Lewis & Chris Stringer. The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain. Elsevier Science. p. 115. ISBN 978-0444535979. 
  12. ^ Mithen (2003), p.120
  13. ^ Owen, James (2005). "British Have Changed Little Since Ice Age, Gene Study Says". National Geographic Society. p. 2. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Edwards, Robin & al. "The Island of Ireland: Drowning the Myth of an Irish Land-bridge?" Accessed 15 February 2013.
  17. ^ "The Doggerland Project", University of Exeter Department of Archaeology
  18. ^ Patterson, W, "Coastal Catastrophe" (paleoclimate research document), University of Saskatchewan
  19. ^ Colin Renfrew (1987), Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6612-5
  20. ^ Patricia Balaresque; Georgina R. Bowden; Susan M. Adams; Ho-Yee Leung; Turi E. King; Zoë H. Rosser; Jane Goodwin; Jean-Paul Moisan; Christelle Richard; Ann Millward; Andrew G. Demaine; Guido Barbujani; Carlo Previderè; Ian J. Wilson; Chris Tyler-Smith; Mark A. Jobling (2010). "A predominantly Neolithic origin for European paternal lineages". PLoS Biology. 8 (1): e1000285. PMC 2799514Freely accessible. PMID 20087410. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000285. 
  21. ^ a b Pollard, AM (2007). Analytical chemistry in archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-521-65572-9. 
  22. ^ Waddell J. 1991. The Question of the Celticization of Ireland, Emania, No. 9, 5–16.
  23. ^ McEvoy and Bradley, Brian P and Daniel G (2010). Celtic from the West Chapter 5: Irish Genetics and Celts. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-84217-410-4. 
  24. ^ Belgae. MSN Encarta. Retrieved 16 February 2011
  25. ^ Dáithí Ó hÓgáin. 2003. The Celts: a history. P.10
  26. ^ Carl Waldman, Catherine Mason. 2006. Encyclopedia of European peoples. vol.1. P.65
  27. ^ Koch, John T. 2006. Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia. P.196
  28. ^ Bell, Andrew Villen. 2000. The role of migration in the history of the Eurasian steppe. P.112
  29. ^ Swan, Toril, Endre Mørck, Olaf Jansen Westvik. 1994. Language change and language structure: older Germanic languages in a Comparative Perspective. P.294
  30. ^ Aldhouse-Green, Miranda Jane. 1995. The Celtic world. P.607.
  31. ^ MacKillop, James. 2004. A dictionary of Celtic mythology
  32. ^ Snyder, Christopher Allen. 2003. The Britons. P.16.


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