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Humans in the British Isles

The purpose of this page is to convey a sense of the way human history and prehistory have swept across the British Isles and of the kinds of people who inhabited them.

Human beings – of one kind or another -- have inhabited this land for a very long time. Of course, these places were not always islands. At times, much of the present land was covered by ice sheets and the glaciers locked up so much water that oceans were much lower. The present North Sea, English Channel and Irish Sea were either frozen ice or dry land.

Neanderthal to Stone Age

We are not the first humans to trod the earth or even the soil of the British Isles.

Archaic humans:

The earliest evidence of humans in the British Isles consist of fossilized footprints, made by Neanderthals or other ancient hominids, found in Happisburg, Norfolk and dating to 800 kya (thousands of years ago).

Archeological evidence of settlement in Pakefield, Suffolk is from 700 kya. “Boxgrove Man”, a homo heidelbergensis of 480 kya, was found in West Sussex.

Neanderthals are thought to have inhabited most of Britain as early as 130 kya until they disappeared about 32 kya. But "disappeared" doesn't mean died out. Neanderthal DNA continues to hang around; it makes up about 3% of Europeans' genes.

Anatomically modern humans:

Homo sapiens sapiens (the surviving human species, us) left Africa 75 to 60 kya and began spreading north, east and west. Cro-Magnons reached Europe about 40 kya; the “ Red Lady of Paviland” skeleton (actually a young man) from 33 kya was found on the Gower Peninsula of South Wales.

This was before the Ice Age (Last Glacial Maximum or LGM) of 23 kya to 14.7 kya. It is believed that the spreading ice caused a depopulation of Europe except for refuges in the south and east.

Britain at Last Glacial Maximum
In this illustration, the ice is white; sea is blue; present land is dark green; LGM-era land is light green; and European human refuges are magenta and orange. Only southern tips of Ireland & England are ice-free.

We call this long period -- some thousands of millennia, encompassing homo erectus and homo habilis -- the Paleolithic or Early Stone Age. It began about 5 million years ago when early humans picked up sharp rocks to use.

Middle to Late Stone Ages

The Stone Ages ("..lithic") are denoted by the types of tools used and other surviving objects. The tools were of wood, bone and stone of which mostly the latter endured for us to find. The ages are not sharply defined; they tend to overlap and each shades into the next.

Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic):

In the Mesolithic, people began to make composite tools, using finely-chipped stones (microliths) combined with wood or bone. There's some evidence of the very beginnings of agriculture late in the Mesolithic. Elsewhere and perhaps in the British Isles, coastal caves seem preferred for habitation; these provided access to the bounties of the sea.

The Creswellian culture (an offshoot of the Magdalenian) left evidence in Devon, Derbyshire and 28 sites total in England and Wales) from 13-11.8 kya. Although amber from the Baltic indicates a trade network, no evidence has been found of human habitation in Scotland or Ireland for this period.

Doggerland, now under the North Sea and English Channel, was rich in resources and connected Britain to the mainland. As the seas rose with glacial melting, Dogger Bank remained above water until about 7 kya. Most of the time and early in the process, the water would have risen slowly, allowing time for evacuation. But on at least one occasion, a tsunami provoked a sudden disaster.

The Younger Dryas was another cold period from 12.8 to 11.5 kya, followed by a third from 8.2 to 7.8 kya. During this time, flint spear points got smaller, perhaps reflecting the dying-out of larger game. Populations probably declined, but some settlements survived.

It's thought that, during the Mesolithic, Britain was at times entirely uninhabited by humans, suggesting an ebb-and-flow pattern.

Alternating periods of feast and famine, depopulation and expansion, seem to have led to increased genetic diversity through “founders effect” and “drift”.

New Stone Age (Neolithic):


 
 

This age is marked by a true revolution: the radical change from primarily hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agriculture, domestication of animals and pottery-making. It began 11 kya in southwest Asia (i.e., “Middle East” or Levant) and reached Britain about 4 kya. The delay was probably due to richness of the post-LGM environment in the warmer climate; deliberate farming wasn't forced on the inhabitants.

Farming the land meant abandonment of nomadic living; crops must be tended from sowing to harvest. It's a radical change in mindset from taking what's available to planning, planting, tending and harvesting.

Pastoralism (tending of animals) also took hold. For herders, a nomadic or semi-nomadic life continued as the grazers needed more grass. A seasonal pattern of moving between winter and summer pastures may have developed.

Populations increased with better food supply; so did social organization and rituals. People, mostly related to each other, began to live in permanent dwellings in settlements of 50-300 people.  Monuments, many on a megalithic scale, were built. Stonehenge, for example, dates to 3.5 kya.

Despite day-to-day settled living, humans still moved from place to place, pushed by pressure from other groups or pulled to hopefully better environments, and enabled by beasts of burden. Three distinct ethnic groups converged in Europe: the old Western Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), Early European Farmers (EEF) and a third -- just recently discovered -- Ancient North Eurasians (ANE). Modern Brits owe blue eyes to the WHG, milk tolerance to EEF and pale skin to the ANE.

We see a rapid genetic differentiation with the population expansion. Many branches of the Y phylogenetic tree budded in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Ages, especially in the now-dominant (in Europe) R1b haplogroup.

It’s debated as to whether the Neolithic Age came to the British Isles by population or technology transfer. The former would mean new peoples coming and bringing their ways with them; it is somewhat supported by genetic evidence. But, these ideas and customs could also have spread by trade and communication between peoples.

Metal Ages

The pace of change accelerated when people learned about metals.

Chalcolithic (Copper) Age:


Copper ore

Imagine an evening about 5.8 kya back. You and some other Neolithics are sitting around a roaring campfire. For the fire ring, you've used some greenish rocks and you've noticed that the smoke made the meat cooked over it smell and taste odd, something like garlic. Now, as flames die away to red-hot coals, you notice the rocks are sweating droplets of an orange-pink liquid which hardens to a malleable metal. You've discovered copper!

In the coming months, you and your friends will experiment and learn to control the process. You'll cast copper into axes, knives, spear tips, chisels and many other forms. The pyramids will be built with your discovery.

Bronze Age:


 
Smelting bronze

Copper had its advantages but also problems. Edged tools soon lost their sharpness. Weapons and armor of copper wouldn't hold up to battle conditions. Mixing copper with arsenic or, preferably, 12% tin made a harder, more durable alloy: bronze.

Bronze could be cast in any shape, sharpened to hold an edge and polished to an esthetic gleam; it thus replaced stone and bone for tools and weapons. Beginning in Egypt 5.2 kya, the Bronze Age reached Britain and Ireland as early as 4.5 kya and lasted until 2.8 kya. (Bronze is not brass. Brass, an alloy of zinc, is softer than bronze.)

Tin, though, is a relatively scarce element; sources were limited -- essentially to Spain and Britain. There’s evidence that techniques of prospecting for and mining it had spread to Cornwall and Devon by 4 kya. Widespread demand and limited supply led to increased trade. Bronze-age objects found in Brittany and Scandinavia contain Cornish tin.

Mesopotamians invented writing 5.2 kya and Egyptian pre-hieroglyphs emerged about  5.5 kya, allowing us to put the Bronze Age into our "beginning of history" category.

The Bronze Age was a time of enormous movements of peoples and the rise and fall of great civilizations: Egypt, Persia, Indus valley, Greece and China. It may be during the Bronze Age that Celtic groups reached the British Isles and started to replace the natives. The Celts were not, perhaps, a genetically homogeneous group but of mixed ancestries. It’s been suggested that they came from as far away as Spain and as near as Brittany and Belgium.

Iron Age:


Iron Age Celtic fort

The world’s Iron Age began 3.2 kya; it is marked -- not only by a change in the metal used for tools and weapons -- but also by changes in agricultural practices, religious beliefs and artistic styles. Pragmatically, iron is much more plentiful than tin and more durable than bronze.

Britain’s Iron Age lasted from 2.8 kya (8th century BC) to Roman Conquest in 43 AD. By 2.8 kya, the islands were exchanging ideas, goods and probably people with the mainland especially between northern Europe and eastern Britain. The climate got wetter, forcing farmsteads to higher ground. Impressive defensive structures, such as brochs and hill forts, indicate this was not a peaceful time.

The Iron Age saw extensive migration from central Europe westward. Many of the Celtic peoples the Romans found probably came to the islands at this time.

In Europe, the Iron Age included the last years of the prehistoric period and the beginning of the historic as it became more common to write in long form. We thus begin to have a demographic picture. Great Britain’s population of 2 kya is estimated at three to four million. Life expectancy was short, to about age 30 for a child of 5; few people lived past 50.

Pytheas the Greek sailed around the islands 310-306 BC and wrote about them. Tacitus , a Roman historian, suggested (~98 AD) that the Celtic tribes had migrated from the mainland; he compared Caledonian Scots to northern Germanics, the southeastern Britons to Gauls and the Silures of southern Wales to Ibernians.

A list of the tribes described by various authors is below.

Roman Period:


 
Roman market
 

For more than four centuries, 2.0 to 1.6 kya, Britannia was a Roman province. However, Roman control never penetrated beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus nor extended to Ireland.

When the Romans departed (as the Empire was beginning to fall) they left structures and a bit of culture behind but little genetic presence. Nor, did Latin heavily influence (as in Spain and France) the local language. The archeological record suggests that Britons soon left the Roman towns to resume their former lifestyles in small hamlets and villages. The economy, as indicated by consumer goods, declined sharply.

Romans contributed written history; the natives’ surviving writing is meager, runes and ogham carvings. The Roman Tacitus (AD 56-117) and Greco-Egyptian geographer, Ptolemy (AD 100-170), give us our best early picture of the Islands’ population, though seen through biased eyes. They name the various tribes and their territories; the names were not necessarily how the tribes would describe themselves but we may use them to distinguish one from another.

Celtic Tribes, as known by the Romans:

Maps can be found at various locations, including

Note that some tribal names are similar between tribes in England and Ireland and on the mainland. The similarities are often taken to mean these tribes were related.

The Picts?

Romans wrote about the Picts, so named for painting their bodies. But the Picts' origins and eventual fate are unclear. They appear to have retreated to the north and been subsumed into the Scots.

Anglo-Saxons:

The Anglo-Saxon period of Britain is considered to have begin in 410 (~1.6 kya).   A Roman contemporary record reports, for the year 441 AD:

“The British provinces, which to this time had suffered various defeats and misfortunes, are reduced to Saxon rule.”

As the Roman legions left, the people who would give the former Britannia its new name of England entered. They were Saxons from Old Saxony, Jutes from the Jutland Peninsula near Denmark, and Angles from lands between the former two.

It started by treaty, to protect the locals from raids by PIcts & Scots, perhaps following a precedent established by the Romans. It shortly got out of hand, with the Anglo-Saxons wanting more than the Britons wished to give.

Though apparently making up, eventually, only a third of the population their cultural and genetic influence was heavy. Old English is mostly Anglo-Saxon and the pithy words of modern English derive from Anglo-Saxon. Modern Frisian is similar.

A simplified map of Anglo-Saxon era Britain, compiled from genetic evidence, is in Figure 3.

Vikings:

About 1.2 kya (800 AD), Danes and other Norse began to go adventuring or, in their language, “Viking”. (The word is, as "..ing" suggests, a verb.) At first, they raided and returned home but by 900 AD had established permanent settlements in the British Isles.

The Viking age was made possible by a technological breakthrough in boat construction. These lightweight vessels could be sailed or rowed; they were seaworthy enough to survive rough North Sea conditions, but shallow-drafted for navigating upstream in rivers. Some versions could be portaged around rapids. Raiders could strike far from the coast with little warning.

On settlting, they came to control an extensive “Danelaw” territory in England and outposts in Scotland and Ireland. They alternately invaded and demanded "Danegeld" tribute for not invading the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

About one-third of modern English vocabulary, e.g., "star", derives from Danish words.

Norman Conquest:

A bit less than 1 kya in 1066 AD, Normans from France conquered England. Many were descendants of Vikings who’d been given territory by a French king.

The Conquest was aided, probably unintentionally, by another of the wars with the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon army was forced to fight two widely-separated battles within days of each other. They won the first but, tired from the long march and forces divided, lost the second.

William the Conqueror instituted a strict feudal system by which most of the natives were reduced to serfdom. He granted lands to his chief lieutenants, who could then grant parts to their subordinates, etc. in a process called subinfeudation. About 20,000 Normans remained in England as freemen.

In 1169, Normans invaded Ireland and conquered it for Henry II by 1177; beginning seven centuries of Ireland being ruled by English-French-Norman lords.

Modern English contains about one-third Norman French words. One of these is tailor (from "tailleur") or Taylor.

Summary

Many peoples have come to the British Isles. Most had lasting influence, whether linguistic, genetic, or cultural. The most accurate view is perhaps that today' British Isles are a melting pot.

Origin Myths

We call these “myths” because they don’t necessarily comport with objective evidence. However, they’ve captured popular imagination for centuries.

Britain:

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in 1138 that Albion was first occupied by a race of giants living underground. Brutus’ army of Trojans defeated the giants; his dynasty ruled until the Romans came. When the Romans left, King Vortigen enlisted help from the Saxons to defeat Picts and Scots, but the Saxons killed most of his leaders and Vortigen fled, opening the door for King Arthur to lead.

Who, of course, is not fascinated by Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table, and Merlin? Chivalry and magic make a potent combination. It's not our intent to here analyze the mythical elements but the story is probably more fanciful than real. It says more about who Britons wished they were than who they really were.

Grains of truth?

The giants might have been Neanderthals; though only 5'5" tall on average, they were stockier and larger-boned than modern humans. Phoenicians possibly did sail to the Islands during the Trojan or Carthaginian periods; it was within their capabilities and they had motive to flee their cities' conquerors. Roman presence is undeniable, as are Celtic/Saxon conflicts. Historical records identify several man who might have been Arthur’s prototype; one in particular led a guerilla war against the Saxons.

Ireland:

The Irish are superb story tellers and their tales cover much more than their origins.

The “Book of Invasions” (Lebor Gabála Érenn) was compiled from earlier material in the late 11th century. It lists four invasions of Ireland, the last of which was by Gaels from the Iberian Peninsula. They were the sons of Mil or Milesius (Milesians) who traced their ancestry to a Scythian (Ukrainian) king.

The Gaels had defeated the otherworldly Tuatha Dé Danann (tribe of the goddess Dannu), a race living partly in the mundane world and partly in the magical. These demigods seem to provide the models for fairy tales.

The Dananns had taken the island from the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians, who were then banished to the Aran Islands and Tory Island respectively.

This myth, too, seems more about aspiration than reality, with descent from a noble ancestor. The magic, though, is of a different character than Monmouth's tale of red vs. white dragons and shape-shifting adultery.

There may be grains of truth in the myth. It is probable that the Gaels’ deep ancestry lay in eastern Europe or Eurasia and that the mainland’s west coast was an intermediate stop, Fomorians have a resemblance to the Viking raiders who wouldn't have been forgotten in the 11th century.

Genetics:

A good clue to who populated the British Isles in the past lies in the genes of those there now. We know that parents pass their DNA to their children and the children to the grandchildren, on down the generations.

Failed attempts

Many studies have tried DNA to answer the questions, but most used methods too crude to resolve the issues. For example:

hapoogroup cline, norht England

The above diagram purports to show a “Germanic” genetic (Y-DNA) dominance in northern England. However, it uses a resolution inadequate to distinguish between Germanic, Celtic, Scandinavian and Norman origins.

Of particular import, "R1b" does not distinguish Germanics from other groups. Both Celtics & Germanics are predominantly haplogroup R1b and, more precisely, R1b1a2a1a (R-M269); they differ only in downstream subclades. Ireland, not shown, is about 90% R1b1a2a1a; no one suggests Ireland is primarily Germanic.

An alternative, rough interpretation of the diagram is that E3b represents a very ancient influence, I & R1a1 together show Scandinavian &/or northern Germanic influences, and R1b represents a compound mixture of Celtic, Germanic & Frankish influences. “Other” also reflects multiple influences.

Other studies indicate that the (more or less) Germanic U106 version makes up about one-third of British R1b and the (more or less) Celtic P312 version accounts for about two-thirds. With I, R1a and other haplogroups, Great Britain's Y-DNA seems to be about 55% "Celtic", 25% "Germanic", 15% "Scandinavian", and 5% other in ancestry.

Better answers

More promising is the “People of the British Isles” study. Its findings are based on more detailed analyses of more of the genome. For pre-Viking Britain, they are simplified in this map below:

map of Britishethnicities ca600 AD Return

The map makes it clear that genetic influences were regional, differing from one area to another.

Conclusion

It seems fair to say that -- of the many peoples who went to the British Isles -- few have completely disappeared from the islands. Most, if not all, have left descendants behind.

The answers to "Who are the British?"  and "Who are the Irish?" are not simple ones.