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Who Lived in Britain Before the Celts?

Who Lived in Britain Before the Celts?

The Celts were the inhabitants of Britain during the Iron age, which began around 750 BC, before the Roman invasion of AD43. The Celtic language, extra cultural sessions, and religion loosely connected these sets of people. 

These people didn’t have a central government and were quite as happy to battle each other as any non-celt. 

The Celts were warriors, living for the glories of wars and plunder. They were also the people that introduced iron-working to the British Isles. Their practice of Shamanism and priesthood called Druids irritated the Roman world and led to the invasion. 

However, before the arrival of the Celt people, Britain had undergone a lot of human evolution within two ages; the stone age and the bronze age, meaning the Bronze age Beaker people used to live in Britain before the celts. 

This article will discuss Britain’s human evolution during these ages, emphasizing the Bronze age. Let’s dive in!

Who Lived in Britain During the Stone Age?

The stone age is the name given to the earliest period of human existence when people first used stone tools. 

Britain’s Stone age was around 950,000 to 700,000 years ago, supported by the tools found at Pakefield in Suffolk and Happisburgh in Norfolk, Southern and Eastern Britain, respectively. 

These inhabitants were different from modern humans as the trails of footprints found by scientists suggest they could have been Homo antecessor, a human species only found in Spain. 

Stone age painting.
Stone age painting
Gugatchitchinadze, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Apart from that species, another human species lived during this period and was estimated to live 500,000 years ago. Two pieces of evidence of their existence, a leg bone and two teeth, were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex, Southern England. (1)

They jointly hunted for animals and were skillful butchers, as detected from the many horses, deer, and rhinoceros bones they left behind. 

With the Anglian Glaciation, a glacial period around 450,000 years ago, Britain became deserted as the survival of humans there became impossible. The absence of humans lasted for millennia, and the Neanderthals later inhabited it. Their existence was evidenced by the discovery of a young woman’s skull from Swanscombe, Kent.  

Years later, modern humans came to Britain. They were a group of hunter-gatherers who moved from mainland Britain to Europe. 

The hunting tools such as fishing nets, harpoons, bows, and stone axes discovered by archaeologists serve as evidence of their hunting period. As their name implies, these people found their food and apparel from wild cattle, pigs, native elk, and wild horses.  

Later on, the hunter-gatherers were succeeded by a party of young farmers who arrived from Southern Europe. They brought with them the practice of deforestation to create habitats for themselves, animals, and domesticated plants. These “young farmers” proved so good at crop planting and livestock breeding that Britain’s population soared to almost one million by 1400 BC.

After these sets of people, Britain was inhabited by the Beaker – the Bronze age.

Who Were the Beaker People?

The Beaker people were a group of migrants who came to Britain around 2,500 BCE and were named after their gorgeous, unique bell-shaped pottery. (2)

These sturdy newcomers were initially few, but they quickly got the upper hand on their Neolithic landlords and became a form of nouveau aristocracy.

Farming and Archery were their main occupations, and they wore stone wrist guards to shield their arms from the painful sting of the bowstring. The Beaker folk were also Britain’s first metalsmiths, working in copper and gold and afterward bronze which gave name to this era.

Shrewton Beaker Burial, 2470–2210 BC. Salisbury Museum.
Shrewton Beaker Burial, 2470–2210 BC. Salisbury Museum
TobyEditor, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Origin

The Beaker people originated in temperate regions of Europe, probably in what is now Spain. These people presumably went into Central and Western Europe to find copper and tin. Then they mixed with the Battle Axe Culture or Single Grave Culture and became one with them. This composite culture kept encroaching on Britain and Central Europe.

How Did They Live?

Round houses evolved at this time, echoing the mushroom-like expansion of stone circles and round barrow mounds. 

Cottages had a small stone wall as a foundation, which the inhabitants used to brace rafters and timber poles. In addition, a roof made of turf, hides, or thatch might have been there.

They crafted their pottery and, later, the first woven garments in Britain. They also appear to have found the first known alcoholic drink in Britain, honey-based mead. Ever since then, the islands have never been the same. (3)

The Beaker folk established a pastoral style to the agricultural way of life of the Neolithic times. During population growth, more marginal land was brought into cultivation and successfully farmed for centuries until adverse climatic changes led to its abandonment. 

The Beaker people were a patriarchal kind of society, and it was during the bronze age that the individual warrior king became relevant, contrasting with the orientation of the community of the Neolithic times.

Climatic conditions began to change drastically towards the end of the bronze age. Following tree ring evidence, a significant volcanic eruption in Iceland may have led to a major temperature decline in just one year. During this time, Dartmoor settlements were deserted, for instance, and peat started to appear on several places that were once houses, farms, and field systems. 

Warfare and banditry likely began as the hungry survivors fought over land that couldn’t support them anymore.

Beaker People Religion

Beaker folks mostly put the barrows together in groups that depict family cemeteries, sometimes very close to ancient Neolithic henges and monuments, as though taking charge of places already perceived to be sacred. (4)

Generally, the barrow graves were loaded with grave goods, indicating the relevance of the dead person and a belief in the afterlife. A few goods that the people loaded inside the barrows include; pottery jars, bronze daggers, necklaces, cups, golden buckles, precious materials, and a scepter on various stones.

Reconstruction of a Bell Beaker burial, Spain.
Reconstruction of a Bell Beaker burial, Spain.
Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Both men and women were buried in barrows. In analyzing these Bronze Age burials, researchers discovered an unusual fact: in numerous instances, the deceased bodies were painstakingly buried with the head facing south, men facing east, and women facing west. 

We can only assume that this method enabled the corpse to view the sun at a specific time. Several of the best barrow burials found are the Saxon/Norse or Iron Age barrows instead of the Bronze Age.

Another key area of the Bronze Age focus was stone circles. Though circles have long been erected as far back as 3400 B.C., the more significant era of circle building was during the Bronze Age. This discovery means that the Beaker people and their descendants took over many of the customs and beliefs of the earlier Neolithic inhabitants. (5)

Surely, they had a chance at improving the most popular stone circle, Stonehenge.

The Beaker People and Wessex Culture

The Wessex Culture of the Early Bronze Age of Southwest Britain originated from the expansion of the Beaker culture when people migrated in search of iron and tin. 

Grave discoveries from this culture – like those of the Amesbury Archer — comprise stone axes, garnished daggers, and gold and amber trinkets. This period aligns with the third chapter of Stonehenge’s construction, which recommenced after a break. This development means a new, more fruitful society based on improved technology with vast trade links.

Furthermore, this new society doesn’t necessarily mean the Beaker people displaced the indigenous population: there’s a chance that people could have peacefully distributed new ideas and goods. 

For instance, amber beads from Wessex have been identified in the shaft graves at Mycenae, showing an established trade network. Possibly with goods came new styles and ideas adopted by local chiefs determined to enhance their standing.

Population Change in Bronze Age Britain

Beaker culture
Image courtesy: wikimedia.org, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Britain saw major population changes. However, the Beaker culture was adopted by a group of people residing in Central Europe whose ancestors had earlier migrated from the Eurasian Steppe. This group went on to move westward and finally settled in Britain about 4,400 years ago.

Data obtained from the DNA suggests that in the space of several centuries, the migrations of people from continental Europe resulted in a nearly complete replacement of Britain’s earlier inhabitants, the Neolithic communities who brought about some huge megalithic monuments like Stonehenge.

In addition, the DNA shows that the Beaker people had a generally different skin color than the population before them, who had olive-brown skin, brown eyes, and dark hair. In contrast, the Beaker people had genes with a significant reduction in eye and skin pigmentation, with blue eyes, lighter skin, and blonde hair becoming more prevalent in the population.

Conclusion

Throughout the iron age, Celts were the tribes that were active in Britain. Before them, the bronze age Beaker people were there. 

However, they only lived there for a brief amount of time. The stone age, which predated the beakers, was divided into three eras: the mesolithic (middle stone age), neolithic and paleolithic (new stone age).