The Celts are not as ancient as many civilisations, but their cultural roots can possibly be traced all the way back to the Vinča culture in Serbia, who were sited along the river Danube (Belgrade modern day). The Danube basin was the site of some of the earliest human cultures and the Vinča culture goes all the way back to pre-history around 5700 BC. Why can we make the connection with the Celts?
Like the early Celts, they were are a very civilized culture. Agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting and foraging all contributed to the diet of the growing Vinča population. Compared to earlier cultures these practices were intense, with increasing expertise on high-yield cereal crops and with domesticated animals, consistent with the increased population density. They made greater use of barley than earlier cultures. These innovations increased crop yields and allowed the manufacture of clothes made from plant textiles as well as animal products (i.e. leather and wool).
There is evidence that Vinča farmers made use of the cattle-driven plough, which would have had a major effect on the amount of human labour required for agriculture as well as opening up new area of land for farming. Many of the largest Vinča sites occupy regions dominated by soil types that would have required ploughing.
Cattle were more important than sheep and goats in Vinča herds and, in comparison to the other cultures, livestock was increasingly kept for milk, leather and as working animals, rather than solely for meat. The Celts were noted for their drinking of milk (even up to recent times, especially in Ireland where it was sold in ale houses), much to the bemusement of the Romans, who considered milk a drink for children.
The Vinča subsistence economy still made use of wild food resources. The hunting of deer, boar and aurochs, fishing, fowling (still practiced in the fens of Eastern England and utilises feathers as well as the meat) and foraging of wild cereals, forest fruits and nuts, making up a significant part of the Vinča diet at some sites. Most settlements though were agricultural and wild resources were underexploited showing an advanced civilisation of farmers.
Some Vinča artefacts were made with considerable levels of technical skill. The Vinča site of Pločnik has produced the earliest example of copper tools in the world. Copper ores were mined on a large scale at sites like Rudna Glava, and mostly made into ornaments and trinkets rather than functional tools, which continued to be made from chipped stone, bone and antler. It is likely that the primary use of mined ores was in their powdered form, in the production of pottery or as bodily decoration.
However, the greatest link to the Celts is found in the Vinča pottery inscriptions.
Vinča pottery contains markings that correspond to Ogham symbols (named after the Celtic God of language and eloquence, Ogma). They also used the symbol of the sun cross, the sun represented by a circle with four rays emanating from the centre representing the four cardinal directions. The Celtic cross is the most widely used remnant of Celtic culture used today and is found in any graveyard in both Celtic and former Celtic nations. This was later used by the Christian church, who transferred worship of the Sun God to Jesus, preserving our pagan Celtic heritage.
Below are the markings found on Vinča pottery and underlined are the symbols that match stone markings found most commonly in Ireland, but also in areas of Scotland and Wales later inhabited by Irish Celts: –
So were the Vinča the ancestors of the Celts? We cannot say for certain, but the written language/ markings seems to fit in. The Celts were widespread over Northern Europe and came into contact with the Iberians from Northern Spain. The majority of recognised surviving Celtic nations today originate from Iberia and were Celtiberians, but many people in South Eastern European nations do have many Cultural similarities. And although records of the Celts go back to the 6th century BC we can see that their culture goes back to earlier civilisations going back over 7500 years.