(Chapter X, section 1)


The British Isles

Résumé of skeletal history

In the earlier historical chapters, various sections have been devoted to the racial study of Great Britain and Ireland. Before commencing the study of the living population of these islands, we shall bring this material together in a brief but continuous résumé, and dilate at greater length upon the skeletal remains which cover the period from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, to the threshold of modern times. Fortunately the documents concerning British racial history are abundant, and the picture which can be drawn is relatively clear.

Beginning with the Pleistocene, we recall that the earliest known sapiens men, Swanscombe and Galley Hill, were excavated from English soil, as was the still problematical Piltdown. During the last interglacial, and the time of the final maximum ice, available portions of Great Britain were inhabited by men similar to the Upper Palaeolithic population in France, while in the post-glacial Mesolithic period, hunting and fishing peoples of central European origin invaded Scotland, and furnished to Ireland its earliest human inhabitants. This Mesolithic population is represented by the MacArthur's Cave skeleton, which resembles the Brünn-Pr

The Neolithic economy was probably first brought to Britain by the bearers of the Windmill Hill culture from the Continent, and they in turn were members of the group which had invaded western Europe from North Africa by way of Gibraltar. The racial type to which these Windmill Hill people presumably belonged was a small Mediterranean, but there is little or no direct skeletal evidence from England to confirm this. By far the most important Neolithic movement into Great Britain, and into Ireland as well, came by sea from the eastern Mediterranean lands, using Spain as a halting point on the way. It was this invasion which passed up the Irish Channel to western and northern Scotland, and around to Denmark and Sweden. The settlers who came by sea were the Megalithic people, and belonged to a clearly differentiated variety of tall, extremely long-headed Mediterranean, which was presumably for the most part brunet. This racial group furnished both Great Britain and Ireland, which consisted, before their arrival, of nearly empty land, with a numerous and civilized population which has left many descendants today.

With or shortly before the introduction of metal, the British Isles were invaded from both sides by fresh settlers. From the west came a triple combination of Borreby brachcephals, Corded people, and eastern Mediterranean Dinarics, under the hybrid auspices of the Zoned Beaker culture, which had grown into an important entity in southern and western Germany; these people entered England and Scotland, but not Ireland. From Spain or the southwestern French coast came the Food Vessel people, who represented the Dinaric element only, and who went first to Ireland and thence over into Scotland. Thus all parts of the British Isles, with the virtual exception of Wales, received an infusion of Dinaric blood, while the oversized Borreby and Corded elements also entered Great Britain, but avoided Ireland. These Bronze Age invaders pushed their Megalithic predecessors back into the hills and into economically undesirable country, whence many of their descendants later reëmerged. The Bronze Age lasted long in the British Isles, especially in Scotland, and the new Bronze Age racial amalgam attained a firm foothold, especially in eastern Scotland, in Yorkshire, and in such open country regions as Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, and Derbyshire. In the Late Bronze Age cremation, which had been an alternative funeral rite before, now became so fashionable that this period is a blank in our knowledge of British racial history. What few bones escaped complete destruction, however, suggest that with this new rite came an Alpine racial element from the Swiss highlands. This element could not, however, have been numerically very important.

Whoever the Bronze Age peoples were, and whatever languages they spoke, we know that the Iron Age invaders were uniformly Keltic; they came in various waves and at various times, through various ports of entry, but the cranial type of the invaders was inevitably the same. Both the Goidels of Ireland, and the Kymric A and B invaders of England, belonged to the Keltic Iron Age branch of the Nordic race; a type characterized by a medium-sized mesocephalic skull, with a low vault, a sloping forehead, a cylindrical lateral vault profile, a long, prominent nose, and a relatively small lower facial segment. Those who entered Ireland were tall; those who settled England and Wales were perhaps shorter. The Belgae, the last of the Iron Age Kelts or near-Kelts, despite their alleged Germanic mixture, cannot be shown to have differed from the others.

These Keltic invasions furnished Ireland with her upper class but apparently not with the bulk of her population; in England regiaonal Iron Age cemenetries disclose the survival of Bronze Age types, although the Keltic Iron Age people furnished a larger ultimate population element than any other contributiong group which came before or after. These Kymric-speaking Iron Age people settled Britain as far north as the Clyde, but failed to penetrate the center and north of Scotland, where the Bronze Age people, who were apparently the Picts, continued undisturbed until after the time of Christ. The Cruithni, the Irish counterparts of the Picts, seem to have been absorbed by their neighbors earlier.

In Ireland the conquering Goidels were organized into clans, under the leadership of the high kings of Tara; other clans, formed of subservient people, and presumably of aborigines, were numerous, and gave the island its name. The mythical history of Ireland constantly refers to the arrival of immigrants, in different waves, from Spain. The Milesians, the actual Goidels, are said to have come directly from Spain, where they had sojourned for a short while, and before that from some distant homeland.1 The crania from the Iron Age tombs are presumably those of Goidels, and not of the survivors of the previous inhabitants, some of whom, according to Irish legend, vanished underground, to haunt the megalithic monuments.

The Romans, in their conquest of Britain, probably introduced little of ultimate racial importance. The Roman officers themselves were almost exclusively of the standard Italic type, which differed little from that of the Kelts, except in stature; but they introduced to London and other towns urban populations from various parts of the empire in which the Alpine race seems to have been most noticeable.2

The inruption of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, which brought to England her present language and national identity, introduced into the eastern counties of both England and Scotland a numerous population of Iron Age Nordics fresh from Denmark and Germany. The Anglo-Saxons were tall, heavy-boned, long-faced mesocephals showing suggestions of the Tronder racial type which we have already studied in Norway.

At the same time that the saxons were pressing the Picts on the eastern Scottish coasts, the Irish Goidels were invading Scotland from the east [SNPA correcton: west], and the two groups, the Germans and Kelts, squeezed the Picts between the two jaws of a pair of pincers. The Picts lost their language, whatever it may have been, and their ethnic identity, and at the same time Scotland assumed her traditional segregation into east and west, highlands and lowlands, Gaelic and Saxon speech.

The westward penetration of the Anglo-Saxons farther into the south isolated the shrinking area of Kymric speech into three disconnected centers; Strathclyde in the north, Wales in the middle, and Cornwall in the south. Of these three Strathclyde was the first to lose its Keltic speech, while that of Cornwall survived into the last century, and Welsh still remains. Soon after the Saxons had established themselves in England and Scotland, they were hampered by fresh invasions from Scandinavia, of Danes and Norwegians, who took over the most strongly Saxon sections of eastern England and Scotland. The Northmen sailed around the north of Scotland, settled the Orkneys, and also left colonies in the Hebrides and other western Scottish isles, and in many parts of Ireland. Dublin itself and its neighborhood were long Danish [SNPA correction: Norwegian] territory. Along the western coast of Ireland, in many places where Gaelic speech has persisted longest, as on the Aran Isles, there may be seen a strong Scandinavian cast in the racial appearance of the population. The Norman invasions brought to the British Isles a further Scandinavian increment, somewhat mixed by its continental sojourn, and along with it adventurers from many parts of Europe. These Normans were not numerous enough, however, to affect any but the uppermost social levels of the nation.

The post-Norman racial history of England may be reconstructed to a certain extent by means of six large and abundantly documented series, three from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and three from the seventeenth. The first three will be dealt with, not in chronological order because that is not precisely known, but rather in geographical seqence, from northeast to southeast to west.

In Rothwell, near Kettering in Northamptonshire, in the heart of the country most thickly settled by Saxons and later by Danes, a crypful of skulls and other bones were discovered, about two hundred years ago, in an old church. Although the exact age and origin of these remains is not known, the most logical explanation is that they represent the local population of the fourteenth and fifteeenth centuries.3 The crypt contains between five and six thousand skulls, of which 100 male examples have been measures. Owing to the dampness of their resting place, the facial skeletons were mostly gone, and the few faes tat had survived were not measured. The vaults fall quite close to the Keltic Iron Age type, although they are not identical with it, differing in possessing a greater flatness of the cranial base, and a slightly greater forehead breadth. They do not, however, resemble the skulls of Anglo-Saxons, and the significance of this series is that in the heart of Saxon country a population should have existed, as early or as late as the fourteenth century, which had almost entirely reverted to a pre-Saxon racial type. The male stature mean, of 167 cm., is furthermore shorther than that of the Saxons and closer to what we assume to have been the Keltic Iron Age level.

In the vaulted ambulatory of St. Leonard's Church at Hythe, Kent, is another collection of skulls presumably from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although they may range anywhere in date between 1100 and 1600 A.D.4 These crania, of which 112 male specimens have been thoroughly studied, represent a fairly homogeneous brachycephalic group, of small to moderate head size, and of Alpine racial type. They can by no means be considered a Bronze Age survival, since they differ profoundly from any known Bronze Age form; they resemble, however, the Spitalsfields crania from Roman London, which represents a continental population, probably largely Italian, which had been transplanted to London by the Romans.

Stoessinger and Morant believe that by the time of this Kentish series, the Roman population of London, which must have survived the departure of the Roman authorities by several centuries, had been largely eliminated and replaced by new blood. In Kent, however, which was one of the most thoroughly Romanized parts of Britain,5 they postulate a racial survival of the descendants of Roman-planted auxiliaries, marines, and tradesmen into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Variations in the cranial index in different parts of the ambulatory suggest that the original heaping, being chronological, revealed a gradual change of type. In any case, the modern Kentish population is not of this Hythe type, which seems in the meanwhile to have disappeared by absorption.

A third but small collection of skulls of the same period comes from the mediaeval Carmelite Cemetary at Bristol.6 It is estimated that during the fourteenth century 20 per cent of the inhabitants of Bristol were immigrants from southern France, but that in the following centuries this element, since it was not renewed, was absorbed into the general population. At the same time immigrants entered from Wales, Gloucestershire, and Somersetshire, in connection with the growing maritime importance of Bristol, and these latter replaced the French influence with a Kymric tinge.

In the early Bristol series, in which French blood was without doubt an important factor, mesocephaly is the rule, with a considerable range of head form. Both ordinary Keltic Iron Age type crania are found, and moderately large Alpine brachycephals with wide foreheads, which seem to represent the French element. In our three series from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, we are stuck by the tendency in England for local enclaves to persist and to be formed; the Rothwell series represents an Iron Age survival, that from Hythe a colonial carry-over from Roman times, and the Bristol colllection a local Keltic and continental combination.

Let us turn to the seventeenth century, during which disasters of great magnitude took place in London, the chief of which was the great plague og 1666 A.D. Wholesale deaths which occurred during this century overcrowded the cemetaries, and resulted in the dumping of bodies into plague pits. Thus were formed the two large cranial series of Whitechapel7 and Moorfields,8, while a third, the Farringdon Street series,9 was obtained by the disposal of a cemetary to obtain building space.

These three series are very similar to one another, although they are not identical; they, nevertheless, represent a single, clearly differentiated and reasonably homogeneous population. In all measurements, indices, and angles little difference can be found between the three hundred male crania of which these series are composed and the general series of Iron Age Keltic invaders of England. The resemblance is morphological as well as metrical; for the same, low, cylindrical vaults, the same exaggeratedly sloping foreheads, and the same pinched faces and narrow noses, typify this city population of seventeenth century Londoners. The continental Roman townsman, as exemplified by the Spitalfields series, seems to have died out utterly in Defoe's London. There may, as Morant suggests, have been social selection at play in the formation of these series; the upper classes may have disposed of their dead elsewhere; still the seventeenth century London type must have been predominantly Iron Age Nordic of the Keltic variety, and this in turn must have been ancestral to the modern Cockney. The arrival in London and other English towns of several thousands of French, Huguenots and of Dutchmen fleeing the cruelty of the Duke of Alva, took place for the most part too late in the seventeenth century for inclusion in the plague pits.

That the Keltic Iron Age cranial type, in mediaeval and modern times, is not confined to London, is made evident by a number of series from graveyards in other regions. A collection of 524 male skulls from a modern Glasgow cemetary, representing the western-central part of Scotland, shows the predominance of this racial type with considerable fidelity.10 This series is drawn from the region in which the Scots of Deira settled when they moved across from Ireland and began their conquest and absorption of the Pictish kingdom. The inference is that the Goidelic invasion of western Scotland was an important mass movement of people.

Another series, including 54 male Lowland Scottish crania,11 was drawn from the counties which include the former Kymric kingdom of Strathclyde as well as part of Berenicia. In this series both Keltic Iron Ages and Saxon type crania are represented, the former with the greater frequency. It is to be noted that the cranial type of the northern Kymri is not perceptibly different from that of the Irish-derived Gaels.

A third series, consisting of 22 modern male crania from the northeastern shires of Scotland, and mostly from Fifeshire, differs radically from the two described above.12 Ten out of the twenty-two crania are brachycephalic, with the highest index 87, and the mean for the groups is 80.2. These skulls are large, with a mean cranial length of 185.4 mm.; they are both wide and long faced, with a bizygomatic mean of 135 mm., and a menton-nasion height of 123 mm.; they fall morphologically as well as metrically into a full-sized Bronze Age category, and represent the usual Bronze Age blend in which Borreby and Dinaric elements are most noticeable. The importance of this series is that in the part of Scotland which remained Pictish longest, an aggregation of crania from as late as the nineteenth century, selected at random, should show the survival of Bronze Age racial types in comparative purity.


1. Hubert, H., The Rise of the Celts, pp. 192-197.

2. Morant, G. M., and Hoadley, M. F., Biometrika, vol. 23, 1931, pp. 191-248.

3. Parsons, F. G., JRAI, vol. 40, 1910, pp. 483-504.

4. Stoessinger, B. N., and Morant, G. M., Biometrika, vol. 24, 1932, pp. 135-202.
Parsons, F. G., JRAI, vol. 38, 1908, pp. 419-450.

5. West Hythe, Portus Limanus, was an important seaport in Roman times and later, but declined when the harbor silted up about 1600 A.D.

6. Beddoe, J., JRAI, vol. 37, 1907, pp. 215-219.
See also Andree, R., Globus, vol. 27, 1900, p. 135.

7. MacDonnell, W. R., Biometrika, vol. 3, 1904, pp. 191-244.

8. MacDonnell, W. R., Biometrika, vol. 5, 1906-07, pp. 88-104.

9. Hooke, B. G. E., Biometrika, vol. 18, 1928, pp. 1-55.

10. Young, M., TRSE, vol. 51, 1917, pp. 347-454; Biometrika, vol. 23, 1931, pp. 10-22.

11. Hooke, B. G. E., and Morant, G. M., Biometrika, vol. 18, 1926, pp. 99-104.
Turner, Sir W., TRSE, vol. 40, part iii, 1902-03, pp. 547-614; JAPL, vol. 37, 1903, pp. 392-408.

12. Reworked from Turner, TRSE, vol. 51, 1917, pp. 171-253.