Professor John Koch of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies has put forward a new theory that the cradle of Celtic civilisation was not Hallstatt, between the Rhine and the Rhone, but the Iberian peninsula.
In his O’Donnell Lecture at the University College, Bangor, he said that on the basis of an extensive continent-wide overview of linguistic and archaeological evidence, he has come to the conclusion that a Celtic civilisation and culture had originated on the Atlantic West of Europe in the Bronze Age. Rather than being the remnants of a great culture that extended to and remained for longer on the Atlantic fringes, he believes the Celtic culture developed here. Professor Koch, a highly respected American academic who settled in Aberystwyth and learnt Welsh, said his theory is based on inscriptions found in Spain and Portugal, which suggest that a Celtic civilisation pre-dated that which emerged in central Europe by more than 500 years.
These stone inscriptions in Portugal and Spain are in the earliest written language of western Europe, Tartessian, and date from 800 BC to 400 BC. Professor Koch argues that this language can be deciphered as Celtic. The traditional theory is that the original British population was over-run by a wave of non-Celtic people from the Iberian peninsula – hence the predominance of a dark-haired rather darkish population in Wales and Brittany. These were followed by successive waves of tall, more lightly coloured Celts from Central Europe.
Recent DNA researches has shown that contemporary British people – Celts and Anglo-Saxons alike – have more in common with the Basques than any other race group. This finding has attracted confusion and amusement in the popular English press. Professor Koch’s theory is supported, at least in part, by Stephen Oppenheimer, author of The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer claims that genetic evidence shows that 75 per cent of the population of the British Isles have the same genes as people who live in the Basque country whose forefathers, he argues, migrated to those islands between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago. Oppenheimer makes another interesting claim. He says there is no evidence – linguistic, archaeological or genetic – to identify the Hallstatt or La Tène regions or cultures as Celtic homelands. He says that this error is derived from a mistake by Herodotos 2,500 years ago when in a remark about the ‘Keltoi’, he placed them at the source of the Danube, which he thought was near the Pyrenees.
“The Danube,” wrote Herodotos, “starts from the country of the Celts and the city of Pyrene. It flows through Europe, which it divides down the middle. The Celts are outside the Pillars of Heracles and march with the Cynesii, who are the western-most people in Europe.” Everything else about his description, argues Oppenheimer, located the Keltoi in the region of Iberia.
The Silver King
Herodotos, according to Henri Hubert, the great French historian, archaeologist and linguistics expert, gives the name of the King of Tartessus at the time when the Phocæans were colonising Marseilles. His name was Arganthonios – the silver King. Tartessus was famous for its silver mines, and according to Herodotos Arganthonios gave money to the Phocæans to build a defensive wall against the Persians of Cyrus. Hubert noted that the name Arganthonios is based on the Celtic form of the word for silver – arganto.
It is possible, of course, that a Celtic chief could have become king of the Iberian state of Tartessus.
There is even an Irish legend in Do Suidigud Tellaich Temra (The Yellow Book of Lecan) about the origins of the Gaelic Celts – “We are born of the children of Mile, of Spain.”
Professor Koch’s theory has attracted a lively discussion on one or two websites. But as yet I have seen no mention of the views of Hubert. He cited Philipon’s work in drawing up an Iberian vocabulary, based on geographical names and proper nouns, which is distinct from Tartessian.
The people of Tartessus were famous for their trading, travelling to Brittany and even to the British Isles, and resemblances in culture between the British Isles and Spain could be explained by trade. Of course, it makes no difference whether the Celts spread from central Europe or from the Iberian peninsula. It’s still very interesting, nevertheless.