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Prehistoric settlement of the British Isles

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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 archeology allowed a view of the settlement pattern to be inferred from changes in artifacts. Since the 1990s the use of DNA has allowed this view to be refined.

Origin myths

Great Britain

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 Greeks under Brutus who landed at Totnes and defeated the giants. After the death of Brutus, the island was divided into three parts (England, Scotland and Wales) ruled over by his three sons. When the two younger sons died, the whole island was ruled by the eldest, Locrinus, 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 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.



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

There is archaeological evidence (thirty-two worked flints found in April 2003 at Pakefield on the Suffolk coast) of settlement of hominini in Britain from about 700,000 BC. A shinbone found belonging to "Boxgrove Man", a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis was found at Boxgrove Quarry, West Sussex is the oldest human remains found in Britain, and has been dated at c. 480,000 BC. Neanderthal man is thought to have appeared in 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 29,000 years ago, 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.

During the following Ice Age (known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)) around 20,000 years ago, Northern Europe may have been completely depopulated of humans. Humans probably returned to the region of the British and Irish peninsula about 14,700 years ago as the Ice Age started to end, after an absence of about 5,000 years. 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. This would indicate a significance which dwarfs all subsequent migrations to Britain from Europe.

Mesolithic and Neolithic

Around 9500 BC, rising sea levels due to ice melting caused Ireland to be separated from Britain, while around 6500 BC Britain became separated from continental Europe. There was a lesser cold period from about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, but settlement seems to have continued in this period. 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 Britain was around 100,000 while that of Ireland was some 40,000. For 2000 BC his estimates are 250,000 and 50,000.

The Beaker people

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.

Celtic settlement

Although "Celts" and "Celtic blood" are commonly talked about, the Celtic wave was a movement of culture, not of population. In general, the base-population of the British Isles has not changed much since 6000BC. However, recent genetic studies regarding Y-DNA Haplogroup I2b2-L38 have concluded that there was some Late Iron Age migration of Celtic La Tène people, through Belgium, to the British Isles including 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 immigrant populations would have installed themselves as a superstrate.

Although the Celtic peoples do not share a genetic-inheritance, they can be defined by their languages, which are identical to or descended from Proto-Celtic which is a branch of the Indo-European languages. In the case of Britain, linguists have been arguing for many years whether a Celtic language came to Britain and Ireland and then split, or whether there were two "invasions". The older view of prehistorians was that the Celtic influence in the British Isles was the result of invasions from the European continent by diverse Celtic-speaking peoples over the course of centuries, accounting for the P-Celtic vs. Q-Celtic isogloss. This view is challenged by adherents of the Insular Celtic dialect group hypothesis, which instead states that Insular Celtic. split off from Proto-Celtic and then split into British and Primitive Irish.

By ca. the 6th century ( Sub-Roman Britain), most of the inhabitants of the British Isles were speaking Celtic languages of either the Goidelic or the Brythonic branch.

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC, some Belgic people seem to have come to central southern Britain from the continent (they are usually considered to have been Celtic-speaking, although Caesar reports that some of them claimed historically Germanic origin). 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.

In Ireland as in Great Britain, early Celtic influence is taken to correspond to the early Iron Age. 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.

Historic settlement

For the historic settlement of the British Isles see:

  • Historical immigration to Great Britain
  • Immigration to the United Kingdom since 1922
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