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
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 Iruña-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.
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.
That theory, however, is rejected by most historical
Theories about Basque origins
possibility is that a precursor of the Basque language may have
arrived with the advance of agriculture, some 6,000 years ago.
Partly as a result of DNA analysis,
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 Tène culture
migrations, but we can only speculate on whether these ancient Irish
and British speakers were using a precursor to Basque or some other
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These same sequences are widespread throughout the western half of Europe, especially along the western fringe of the continent.
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.
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):
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...
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: