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Who Were The Celts? Why Historians Can't Agree...

Updated on February 12, 2012
The Celtic peoples have been romanticized by historians and authors, for their 'otherness'. For example, the tradition among Celts across Europe that women participated in battles.
The Celtic peoples have been romanticized by historians and authors, for their 'otherness'. For example, the tradition among Celts across Europe that women participated in battles.

What do we mean by 'Celts'?

The first people to be be called 'Celt' were the central European tribes who were called 'Keltoi' by the Ancient Greeks.Later, Roman historians used the term 'Celtus' to describe tribal peoples whose culture spread across much of central and northern Europe at the time.

Today we often use the word 'Celts' to talk about the original inhabitants of Ireland, Britain, Northwestern France and Northwestern Spain - before the Romans or any other groups conquered those areas. Some historians treat them as the the same 'Celts' as those of central Europe. Essentially they believe that northwestern Europe is home to 'leftover' Celts who were not pushed out by Germanic migration into central Europe in the middle ages. However, not all the evidence agrees with this point of view.

Were they the same people - or have historians got them mixed up? Read on to find out who the Celts were and why historians call two different groups of people 'The Celts'.

Roman map of Celtic territories in mainland Europe, circa 54 AD.
Roman map of Celtic territories in mainland Europe, circa 54 AD.

Central European Celts

The word Keltoi was first used by Hecateus of Miletus in 517 BC to describe a tribe of people living in central Europe. During the Roman empire a group who the Romans called Celtus actually reached the city of Rome and ransacked it, around 400 BC. After this traumatic defeat, defeating the Celtus became a focal point of Roman foreign policy and lead to long, bloody Roman campaigns of conquest in what is now France and Britain.

The language or group of languages of these early Central European Celts have not survived. Their shared culture can mainly be identified through common artistic styles and representations of shared spiritual beliefs.There is archaelogical evidence that in pre-Christian times, a people with common language and culture spread throughout Europe. They were characterized by Roman historians as a war-like people. Archaeological remains of Celtic jewelry and weaponry tells us that they were skilled metal-workers who appreciated intricate and beautiful designs.

Evidence from place names suggests that people who could be identified as Celts lived in places as far apart as Turkey and southern France. For example, Galatia in Turkey seems to have been named after people with the same origins as the Gaels of Ireland or the Gaulish people of France.

However there is also at least some counter evidence that the Celts of Central Europe were a related people of those in Northwestern Europe, trading partners with a similar culture - but not ultimately the same people...

The inhabitants of ancient Ireland and Britain were a patchwork of tribes with shared language and culture.
The inhabitants of ancient Ireland and Britain were a patchwork of tribes with shared language and culture.

How the early people of Britain and Ireland became 'Celts'...

Historians in Ancient Rome believed that the tribes of Britain and Ireland were closely related to the 'Gaulish' people of modern-day France. However they did not include them in the term 'Celts'.

Today the idea that the Gaelic/Welsh/Breton -speaking people of the Western European seaboard is a common one. However, the practice of grouping these people together under the name 'Celts' only began in the late seventeenth century when there was a revival of interest in the language and culture of the early inhabitants of the British Isles.

Because of similarities in the artwork of these early peoples with that of the Central European 'Celts', English historians assumed that the two peoples were one and the same. Thus, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany came to be seen as the last refuge of a people who had once dominated Europe but who had been displaced by Roman conquest and Germanic migration. It is a romantic view, of a people ousted but no conquered completely; but how true is it?

In fact, art historians have pointed out significant differences in the artwork of central European Celts (such as was found at La Tene) and the designs favored by early tribes in Britain and Ireland.

Furthermore, because the language of the 'Celtus' people of ancient central Europe has died out as new groups arrived in the region, we cannot be sure that those Celts spoke the same language as the peoples of northwestern Europe. What we do know is that the people of the what are called the six Celtic nations speak languages which are connected and which are commonly known as the Celtic languages.

This table shows how the six different languages known as Celtic are connected in two inter-related groups....

P-Celtic languages
Q-Celtic languages
Irish Gaelic
Scots Gaelic
This map showing distribution of haplogroup Rb1 in Europe suggests the peoples of northern and western Europe are closely related, but are quite distant (genetically speaking) from the people of central Europe.
This map showing distribution of haplogroup Rb1 in Europe suggests the peoples of northern and western Europe are closely related, but are quite distant (genetically speaking) from the people of central Europe.

So who were the Celts? DNA can give some answers..

Research into the ancestry of Europeans through DNA testing of men has revealed some interesting information about the origins of many people living in Europe today. This information is sometimes a challenge to the accepted view of Europe's ancient history where successive waves of migration are thought to have subsumed the Celts - except in the northwestern corner of Europe.

What the DNA research suggests is that the people living today in the areas where some Celtic languages are spoken, are closely related to each other. This means that the Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Manx, and Breton people share ancestors in common at some point in the distant past. They are also closely related to the people of northern Spain, in terms of DNA.

However, there is not a particularly strong link between the peoples of central Europe and those of the six Celtic nations. This suggests that the Celts of central Europe and those of Britain and Ireland were not a single group of people, though they may have had a broadly similar way of life, they are not ultimately descended from the ancestors until you go much further back in history. In fact if you go far enough back in time, all Europeans are descended from Africa - so maybe it doesn't really matter who the Celts were at all!

So what do you call the people from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man? Well. maybe 'Celts' is as good a word of any. While each group has its own name for itself, and its own unique culture, there is no doubt these cultures and languages are connected. If 'Celtic' can describe the ancient languages still spoken today, then 'Celtic' can also describe the people living in those regions.

As for the Keltoi of central Europe who live two thousand years ago. I think they can also be called Celts in English but we need to distinguish them - maybe call them central European Celts or ancient Celts. They might have the same name but we need to remember they were not exactly the same people - neither in ancestry nor in culture.

If we are ever to truly understand the history of ancient Europe, more research is needed. Because these early tribal peoples did not leave many written records we need more archaeology and examination of language used in place names. That way, we can hope to really understand who they were, how they lived, how their cultures developed and how much they influenced each other.

Find out more....

Links to more articles:

Wishing you the best of Irish luck with your research into the Celts!

- Marie McKeown


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    • profile image 

      20 months ago

      I am a Cymraeg 1st language speaker. Regarding the lack of Cymraeg place names in Lloegr (England), the name of the capital city is Llundain, i.e.llyn--(lake) and dain or din--(city) Londinium. The river is Tafwys--(Thames) But then again the Saeson--(Saxon) have a habit of changing place names wherever they go!

    • Jacob Otxoavalles profile image

      Jacob Otxoavalles 

      21 months ago

      The celts had to have migrated from a point A origin and according to DNA forensic research of which tells truth. Celts are simply a lost tribe of Israel and directly related to the Basques of which are most definitely one of the lost tribes and from what I've gathered your 13th tribe. Why the 13th tribe; I'm not sure, considering from what I've read the Basque are your first European settlers and choose to isolate themselves seemingly. Much research only raises more questions.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      A very interesting piece. In his book, Julius Caesar described the Belgae as speaking a Germanic language so it is quite possible that the "Celts" didn't all speak the same language. FWIW, the Belgae had also spread into southern England (Their capital, Venta Belgarum, is modern day Winchester.) Some people are now thinking that perhaps the Belgae and the Attrebates in England possibly spoke some form of Germanic tongue / early English. It would certainly explain the lack of Welsh place names in England and the dearth of Welsh words in English. (The river names could be much older. Experience from around the world has shown that river names are very resilient for a number of reasons).

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      6 years ago from Beautiful South

      Very good information, especially the DNA. I just finished reading another hub on the ancient Celts, and the DNA bears out the history he wrote. The Celts covered a much larger area than many of us in the US were lead to believe. It makes me wonder if the Huns would be considered Cents?

    • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie McKeown 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      I'm glad to hear you learned something Jenn-Anne. Thanks for your comment.

    • Jenn-Anne profile image


      8 years ago

      Lots of great information here. I learned a lot. Great hub!

    • flashmakeit profile image


      8 years ago from usa

      fascinating hub after reading the section where you state that Celtic people may have lived as far back as Turkey made me want to Google and research some Ancient Celtic monastery ruins


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