The north-western region of Spain has strong Celtic roots stretching back thousands of years. The influence of those Celtic arrivals remains strong in modern-day Galicia.
The origins of the Celtic people are shrouded in mystery. Their language is Indo-European, which puts their origins north of the Black Sea some 12,000 years ago. At some point, these tribes began to move and settle in central Europe, and eventually into Spain.
It’s difficult to be sure of exact dates, but it’s believed the migration of small groups of Celts overland through the western passes of the Pyrenees took place in the decades either side of 1,000 BC, perhaps earlier.
Isolated in the north-west mountains, they preserved much of their culture. This region, Galicia, shares its name with the Galicia region in central Europe between Poland and Ukraine, and to some extent with Gaul in France, which was inhabited by Celts in Roman times.
The introduction of iron
The Celts contributed items to Spain’s cultural legacy including iron. Iron replaced bronze in weapons and tools. By about 1,200 BC, warfare increased and interrupted trade routes. This caused scarcity in the availability of tin, and therefore cut the production of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.
Smelters elsewhere began to experiment in iron, which soon caught the attention of the Celts. When iron is repeatedly heated in a hot charcoal furnace, it forms carbon steel, which is strong enough to slice through bronze and therefore perfect for a weapon. Armed with such weapons, the Celts arrived and with it, the iron age arrived in Spain.
The Celts settled in hilltop towns, and ruins of such settlements can still be seen today across Galicia. The rolling hills and mountains of the region helped to isolate these communities, even the coastal fishing villages that clung to the hills facing the sea.
Life would have been tough. One Greek geographer once wrote of Galicia: “Northern Iberia in addition to its ruggedness not only is extremely cold, but it lies next to the ocean. Consequently it is an exceedingly wreched place to live in.”
But the communities of Celt-Iberians made it work. The men built hilltop stone villages, fished, hunted, and worked with iron, while the women worked with agriculture, planting wheat and gathering acorns from the forests. The communities came to worship nature, and Christian leaders had a hard time persuading the independent Celts to give up their traditional rituals.
The influence remains strong today
Traces of this early immigration of around three thousand years ago remains in the Galicia of today. Celtic roots can clearly be seen in the region’s traditional musical instrument, the gaita, which anyone familiar with the bagpipes of Scotland will recognise.
The stone houses in the green countryside recall Ireland, while many of the words in the local dialect have Celtic roots. Approximately half of the non-Latin toponyms found in the works of classical geographers and authors or in Roman inscriptions have been found to be Celtic in origin.
While there are Celtic toponyms all over Galicia, most Celtic and pre-Latin toponyms can be found along the coastal areas, most notably in the Rías Altas region around A Coruña, and in the Ulla river valley.
Recent DNA studies have shown that Spain served as a crossroads for Celts moving in the bronze age. All the Celts in the British Isles actually came from Celts in Spain who crossed the Bay of Biscay thousands of years ago.
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