There is much conjecture concerning the origins of the people who came to be known as the Celts. Jean Markale states that they have " risen, apparently from nowhere, in around the 5th or 6th century BC " (1) By analyzing Celtic legends and myths, backed by geographical and geological evidence, Markale places their beginnings in the area of what is now Belgium and northern France. Others have placed Celtic origins somewhat further east in what is now southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In fact, it is possible that both theories may be correct. The Celts are believed to descend from a group of people whose artifacts have been found in both places: the Urnfield People.
The Celts " can be traced back for at least twenty-five centuries" beyond the very beginnings of any literate civilization north of the Alps. (2) Archaeologists have claimed "with scientific certainty" (3) that the earliest direct ancestors of the Celts were the Urnfield people. They originated in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland around 1300 BC and lived in the area for about 500 years, until 800 BC; the Late Bronze Age. They earned the unusual name Urnfield because they customarily cremated their dead and placed the ashes in pottery urns that were then buried in organized cemetery-like fields.
These people were farmers living in small communities who developed the first organized farming methods in northern Europe. Evidence found in the burial sites shows that they were also skillful metalworkers, making bronze tools, utensils, weapons and jewelry. Their swords had very decorative hilts and their shields were metal-clad with artistic designs. They also developed rudimentary body armor to compliment the swords and shields. The jewelry was made using an abstract curvilinear form. (4)
The people known as the Celts first appeared in southern Germany's Danube basin in approximately 800 BC. Having descended from the Urnfield people they continued and improved upon many of the skills and art forms of the Urnfield people. The earliest recorded mention of the Celts occurs around 500 BC in classic Greek writings which refer to them as "Keltoi" and Roman documents which call them "Celtae". (5) At this time they were already established over much of the Alpine area, southern Germany, southern and central France and western Spain.
The Celts spoke an Indo-European language and some think that there may have been a connection with people from the Russian Steppes. The Celts love and respect for horses and their use for transportation, farming and war, which are all similar to the ancestors of the Cossacks who later populated the Steppes, appear to be the basis for this theory. Were the people of the Steppes really ancestors of the Celts? Or, did the Celts learn their horsemanship skill from those people when they met in trade? No clear answer is available at this time.
The Celts expanded from the Danube valley across most of northern Europe. Twelve different nations now occupy areas where they established settlements: Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Rumania, Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine. Researchers have also found trade settlements in northern Italy and western Persia. (6)
The Celtic nation was a loose assemblage of many tribes, each with their own leaders or chieftains and territories. The Cymry migrated to what is now England. They were later pushed south to present-day Wales and Cornwall. The Bretons were part of a second migration to England. The Gaels settled in Ireland, thus the present references to Ireland as Gaelic. The Gaul who settled in present-day France and the Teutones from Germany were also part of the Celtic nation. The Cimbri and Teutones were Germanic tribes with connections to the Helvetti and Tiguri Celts and were assumed by historians of that time to be Celtic. There were several other tribes who, individually or as allies, fought the Roman Legions and were annihilated. (7)
During the later Bronze Age, northern Europe suffered many major natural calamities, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods that caused massive migrations. It was during this time that the largest expansion of the Celtic nation occurred.
Archaeologists have used artwork, common language, beliefs and forms of tribal governments to link these communal bodies or tribes into the loosely organized Celtic nation. Were these a homogeneous people or just various tribes that adopted the Celtic culture, by choice or by conquest? There is some question among current archaeological groups. Yet, all of the classical Greek and Roman historians who encountered the Celts, described them as tall, with fair complexion and light hair, usually said to be blond or red. The consistency of the descriptions would seem to indicate a homogeneous people.
The Celtic culture dominated northern Europe for over seven hundred years. In the first century BC, Rome finally defeated the Celts in Gaul (France) and the tribes of the north were absorbed into the Germanic tribes as they expanded southward. This was the end of the Celtic culture on the continent.