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
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 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.
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
Theories about Basque
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.
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
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
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, 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.
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).
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.
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,
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
"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."