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The origin of the Basque people has been shrouded in mystery.


The Basques have occupied much the same area of northern Spain and southern France for thousands of years, extending further eastward and northwards into Gascony and the Pyrenees, as attested by archaeological and toponymical evidence, and speak a language whose ties to other living languages are unclear at best.


Nowadays it is accepted that most likely, the Basques are the last surviving people from a time of European prehistory when Indo-European languages were not yet widely spoken in the continent.



Early attestation and native territory

Basque and other pre-Indo-European tribes (in red) at the time of Roman arrival.


The key sources for the early history of the Basques are the classical writers, especially Strabo, who in the 1st century AD reported that the Vascones inhabited modern day Navarre, NW Aragon and lower La Rioja. He also mentioned other tribes between them and the Cantabrians: the Varduli, Caristii and Autrigones.


Until recently there was no direct evidence of their language but it was commonly accepted that all these tribes were Basque-speakers - at least with great likelihood. Recently, excavations in the Vasco-Roman town of Irua-Veleia have unearthed evidence of Basque being also spoken in the Western Basque Country at that time.


Another important Basque-speaking group were the Aquitani tribes of Gascony, whose language, attested by funerary slabs, is now agreed to be very close to Basque.



Evidence from language

It is unknown whether Vascones spoke an old form of the Basque language.


Surviving place names and a few personal names tend to suggest they spoke old Basque, but we cannot be sure. Equally uncertain is whether the previous inhabitants of the modern Basque territory - the Varduli, Caristii, and Autrigones - were related tribes. Some researchers, based on the meager historical evidence we possess, think that they were Celtiberian peoples, speaking languages not related to old Basque.

In fact, the best evidence for a Basque-related language is in Gascony in southwestern of France, where the local Aquitanians spoke a language which may be related to Basque. (This extinct Aquitanian language should not be confused with Occitan, a Romance language spoken in Aquitaine since the beginning of the Middle Ages.)

There is toponymical evidence that the Basque language was once spoken over a much wider area than the modern day Basque country. This is specially attested by toponymy, that extends the proto-Basque linguistic area at least to all the Central Pyrenees, Upper Ebro valley and all Gascony.

The German linguist Theo Vennemann claims that such toponyms are found throughout Central and Western Europe, these areas having been settled by speakers of the so-called Vasconic languages after the ice age.


That theory, however, is rejected by most historical linguists.



Theories about Basque origins

The main theory about Basque origins suggests that they are a remnant of Paleolithic Europeans inhabiting continuously the Franco-Cantabrian region since at least Magdalenian times, and maybe as early as the original colonization of Europe by Homo sapiens.


Prehistoric origin

The only archaeological evidence for an invasion of the Basque Country dates to some 40,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon people first arrived in Europe and superseded Homo neanderthalensis.


Another possibility is that a precursor of the Basque language may have arrived with the advance of agriculture, some 6,000 years ago.

DNA methods for seeking ancient ancestry are increasingly being used to test the origins of the Basques. An interesting possibility is that Parkinson's disease may be related to the Basque dardarin mutation.


Partly as a result of DNA analysis,

"...there is a general scientific consensus that the Basques represent the most direct descendants of the hunter-gatherers who dwelt in Europe before the spread of agriculture, based on both linguistic and genetic evidence..."

This would make them the descendants of some of the earliest human inhabitants of Europe. The Basque genetic markers also reveal a very strong relationship with the Celts in Ireland and Wales. The shared markers are suggestive of having passed through a genetic bottleneck during the peak of the last ice age, which would mean the two peoples were in Europe by at least about 17,000 years ago, and probably 45,000 to 50,000 years ago.


Despite the genetic connection, there is little reason to suppose that the Celtic languages are related to Basque. It is rather probable that British people related to the Iberian population switched to Celtic with La Tne culture migrations, but we can only speculate on whether these ancient Irish and British speakers were using a precursor to Basque or some other language.

Some authors also believe that the Basque language provides evidence for a Stone Age origin: the words for knife and axe may come from the root word for stone,[8] suggesting that the language developed when knives and axes were made of stone rather than bronze or iron.


Mitochondrial DNA analysis tracing a rare subgroup of haplogroup U8 places the ancestry of the Basques in the Upper Palaeolithic, with their primitive founders originating from West Asia.


Other theories

  • Basques as part of the migration into Western Europe, c.1300 BCE, of speakers of Indo-European languages. This is at odds with the absolute lack of Celtic influence in Basque language.


  • Basques as migrants from the North of Africa, more exactly from the Berber ethnic group. This is an old hypothesis based in pseudo-scientific comparison between Basque and Tamazhig languages that is now widely discredited.


  • Basques as Neolithic immigrants or even as an Iberian tribe (the latter based in arguable similarities between Iberian and Basque languages).


Thousands of years in the same region

Regardless of which theories are correct, it is quite possible that the Basques arrived before the Celts and likely that they are the oldest continuously surviving people inhabiting a particular location in Europe.


It is believed that they have lived in or near their present location for at least four thousand years, a relatively small group of people surviving when many others were overwhelmed by invaders.


A number of early Basque writers sought to explain this  -  in keeping with the academic fashion of their time, typically through speculation about racial superiority  -  but the endurance of the Basques can also be explained by good fortune: they happened to be in the right place over and over again.

Whether the Basques chose their easily defended home in the Pyrenees or were forced into it at some time in the past, it is common for mountainous regions, as with islands, to remain as bastions of an otherwise vanished culture or people.


In a similar manner, for example, when the extensive Celtic cultures of Europe were overwhelmed by invaders, the only remaining areas speaking Celtic languages were Ireland and a number of remote mountainous or coastal bastions in Brittany, Scotland, and Wales which retain Celtic speakers to the present day.

In any case, the Basque homeland is well suited to survival. Its low mountains are combined with dense forests and vegetation which make it impassable to outsiders en masse, but still temperate enough to support a large agricultural base - one where the soil is poorer than the surrounding plains, leaving the area a much less tempting target for invaders.


Furthermore, the Basque areas have few reserves of precious metals, especially in comparison to the gold reserves to the west in Spain or to the wealth in Gascony just to the north.


The Basques seem to have ended up in the best locale on the European continent for uninterrupted survival.






As with the Basque language, the Basques are generally considered to be an isolated ethnic group.

The Basques are clearly a distinct ethnic group in their native region. They are culturally and especially linguistically distinct from their surrounding neighbours, and the controversial claim has often been made that they are comparably genetically distinct as well.


Traditionally, by popular culture, they are considered to be tall, muscular, high-shouldered, big ears and with a very high incidence of blond hair, fair skin and blue and grey eyes.


Some Basques, especially in Spain, are strongly, even violently, nationalist, identifying far more firmly as Basques than as citizens of any existing state. Many others are not, feeling as Basque as Spaniards, and have to suffer from the harassment of the extreme Basque nationalists.


Indeed, the only question would seem to be whether the term "ethnic group" is too weak, or whether one should favor the term "nation", advocated by many in Basque Country.

In modern times, as a European people living in a highly industrialized area, cultural differences from the rest of Europe are inevitably blurred, although a conscious cultural identity as a people or nation remains very strong, as does an identification with their homeland, even among many Basques who have emigrated to other parts of Spain or France, or to other parts of the world.

The strongest distinction between the Basques and their traditional neighbors is linguistic. Surrounded by Romance-language speakers, the Basques traditionally spoke (and many still speak) a language that was not only non-Romance but non-Indo-European.


Although the evidence is open to question, the prevailing belief among Basques, and forming part of their national identity, is that their language has continuity to the people who were in this region not merely in pre-Roman times, but in pre-Celtic times, quite possibly before the great invasions of Europe by Asian tribes.




Although they are genetically distinctive in some ways, the Basques are still very typically west European in terms of their Mt-DNA and Y-DNA sequences, and in terms of some other genetic loci.


These same sequences are widespread throughout the western half of Europe, especially along the western fringe of the continent.


The Saami people of northern Scandinavia show an especially high abundance of a Mt-DNA type found at 11% amongst Basques. Somewhat higher among neighbor Cantabrians, being the isolated Pasiegos with Mt-DNA V haplogroup of wider micro-satellite variation than Saami.

It is thought that the Basque Country and neighboring regions served as a refuge for Paleolithic humans during the last major glaciation when environments further north were too cold and dry for continuous habitation.


When climate warmed into the present interglacial, populations would have rapidly spread north along the west European coast.


Genetically, in terms of Y-chromosomes and Mt-DNA, inhabitants of Britain and Ireland are closely related to the Basques, reflecting their common origin in this refugial area.


Basques, along with Irish, show the highest frequency of the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup R1b in Western Europe; some 95% of native Basque men have this haplogroup.


The rest is mainly I and a minimal presence of E3b. The Y-chromosome and MtDNA relationship between Basques and people of Ireland and Wales is of equal ratios as to neighboring areas of Spain, where similar ethnically "Spanish" people now live in close proximity to the Basques, although this genetic relationship is also very strong among Basques and other Spaniards.


In fact, as Stephen Oppenheimer has stated in The Origins of the British (2006), although Basques have been more isolated than other Iberians, they are a population representative of south western Europe. As to the genetic relationship among Basques, Iberians and Britons, he also states (pages 375 and 378):

By far the majority of male gene types in the derive from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal), ranging from a low of 59% in Fakenham, Norfolk to highs of 96% in Llangefni, north Wales and 93% Castlerea, Ireland.


On average only 30% of gene types in England derive from north-west Europe. Even without dating the earlier waves of north-west European immigration, this invalidates the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory... 75-95% of British and Irish (genetic) matches derive from Iberia... Ireland, coastal Wales, and central and west-coast Scotland are almost entirely made up from Iberian founders, while the rest of the non-English parts of the Britain and Ireland have similarly high rates. England has rather lower rates of Iberian types with marked heterogeneity, but no English sample has less than 58% of Iberian samples...

Before the development of modern Genetics based on DNA sequencing, Basques were noted as having the highest global apportion of Rh- blood type (35% phenotypically, 60% genetically).


Additionally Basques also have virtually no B blood type (nor the related AB group). These differences are thought to reflect their long history of isolation, along with times when the population size of the Basques was small, allowing gene frequencies to drift over time.


The history of isolation reflected in gene frequencies has presumably been key to the Basque people retaining their distinctive language, while more recently arrived Indo-European languages swamped other indigenous languages that were previously spoken in western Europe.


In fact, in accordance with other genetic studies, a recent genetic piece of research from 2007 claims:

"The Spanish and Basque groups are the furthest away from other continental groups (with more diversity within the same genetic groups) which is consistent with the suggestions that the Iberian peninsula holds the most ancient West European genetic ancestry."