History of The Celts
THE PRE-CELTIC WORLD
The Celts left no written record of their early history. The first written mention of them came from their Mediterranean neighbors. To the Greeks, they were known as the Keltoi. Around the year 500 BC, Hecataeus wrote of the trading center Massilia (Marseilles) as being located in the land of the Ligurians, near the land of the Celts. He also mentions a Celtic town in Austria in the present day province of Styria.
|Herodotus (ca 484-420BC?) also refers to the Celts at a slightly later date, mentioning in his work, The Histories, that the source of theDanube lay in the land of the Celts. He located the Celts as occupying the lands to the West and North of the Mediterranean, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the Straits of Gibraltar, in the Danube region, and behind Marseilles. In other words, the Celts were already in the Iberian Peninsula, Aquitaine, and north of the Alps - a sizable portion of Europe. What he didn't know was that they had recently reached Britain, which is known to have had Celtic habitation by 500 BC. (It wasn't until c. 350 that Celts crossed to Ireland.)|
|Hecataeus and Herodotus were writing at a time when the Celts
were just reaching the first identifiable stage of their history - an era known
to archaeologists as "The Hallstatt Culture," which we will explore in a later
essay. Neither author found it necessary to explain to their audience who the
Celts were. Presumably, the existence and name of these northern barbarians were
already known to the more civilized Greeks.
Who were the Celts and where did they come from? To find the answers we have to go back into pre-history and examine the archaeological remains of the tribes which populated early Europe during the late Stone Age and into the Bronze Age. In her book The Celts, Nora Chadwich traces the threads which lead down through millennia of pre-history to the emergence of the Celts as a recognizable people.
The first inhabitants of Europe were Paleolithic and Mesolithic hunter/gatherers who moved north as the Quartenary Ice Age retreated. By the 9th millennium BC, even such northern regions as Denmark, Northern Britain, and the Baltic area had been penetrated. Several origins are cited for these people, but, whether they came from Eurasia, or the Iberian Peninsula, or North Africa, as the early centuries passed, they became intermingled, thus removing the chance of any pure racial stocks. These people became the source from which all subsequent European population groups were derived. Any later arrivals were absorbed in the same manner over time, further mixing the racial potpourri.
In about the 9th millennium BC, agriculture began to emerge in the Middle East. By the 6th millennium, pressed by a growing population, the agriculturists were beginning to migrate to the west and north looking for fertile land to cultivate and supplanting, absorbing, or converting the earlier hunter/gatherers to an agricultural or pastoral way of life. The agriculturists grew cereal crops; the pastoral groups herded cattle and swine; some groups engaged in both activities to varying degrees.
Following the river valleys, these farming groups reached central Europe during the 5th millennium, where they found rich loess soil which was easy to cultivate with the simple tools and methods in use at that time. The pace of migration and resettling accelerated, particularly in the fertile valleys of the Danube and the Rhine. Nearly all of Europe, including Britain and Ireland, were resettled during this era. In most areas, the settlers found very productive soil, and the bounty it produced made two other developments possible. First, as farming techniques became adapted to the seasonal climate of temperate Europe, the people found themselves more secure in their food supply than they had previously been; and, secondly, they found themselves with more leisure time. This in turn created the right circumstances for further advances in technology and social organization.
Switching for a moment back to the Middle East, where control of the food supply had already reached higher efficiencies, it is possible to see the cultural consequences of increased technology and leisure. The first of the great civilizations of the world sprang up among the Sumarians of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley in about 3200 BC. Egyptian civilization followed shortly thereafter, beginning in 3100 BC. By 2500 BC, the Egyptians were building the Pyramids. The Minoan civilization of Crete came into being at about the same time. All of these early civilizations were founded on an agricultural economy, and all of them developed similar institutions, some of which proved to be the tragic flaws leading to their demise.
In the temperate zones of Europe, nothing so dramatic was going on at this time. Nevertheless, the European agriculturists were moving toward something resembling civilization, although it was still hundreds of years away.
Archaeologists classify pre-historic populations by the artifacts they left behind and by the types of inhumation (burial) they practiced. We are concerned here with two groups in particular as being the earliest forerunners of the Celts.