The Celtic fringe of Britain: insights from small mammal phylogeography
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Recent genetic studies have challenged the traditional view that the ancestors of British Celtic people spread from central Europe during the Iron Age and have suggested a much earlier origin for them as part of the human recolonization of Britain at the end of the last glaciation. Here we propose that small mammals provide an analogue to help resolve this controversy. Previous studies have shown that common shrews (Sorex araneus) with particular chromosomal characteristics and water voles (Arvicola terrestris) of a specific mitochondrial (mt) DNA lineage have peripheral western/northern distributions with striking similarities to that of Celtic people. We show that mtDNA lineages of three other small mammal species (bank vole Myodes glareolus, field vole Microtus agrestis and pygmy shrew Sorex minutus) also form a ‘Celtic fringe’. We argue that these small mammals most reasonably colonized Britain in a two-phase process following the last glacial maximum (LGM), with climatically driven partial replacement of the first colonists by the second colonists, leaving a peripheral geographical distribution for the first colonists. We suggest that these natural Celtic fringes provide insight into the same phenomenon in humans and support its origin in processes following the end of the LGM.