The Basque mystery- roots of Biscayan language and culture

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Pål Trosvik

For BIO9270, Spring 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The Basque territories of north-west Spain and south-west France have puzzled linguists and anthropologists alike for centuries. The people who claim this region as their homeland have, faced with invasions and political oppression, been able to preserve a distinct culture and language throughout the last millennia. Even to the present day the Basque strife for preservation of regional identity and political independence continues.

In this essay I will attempt to illuminate some of the factors that make the Basques unique as an indigenous people of Western Europe, and the sole surviving speakers of a non-Indo-European language in this part of the world. The main focus of the paper will be on the provinces Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa in the autonomous Spanish Basque community, around the bay of Biscayne, but the traditionally Basque provinces of Araba and Nafarroa (Navarre), as well as the French Basque regions, will also be touched upon.

 

 

Briefly on geography and demographics

 

The heartland of modern day Basque territories is in the western Pyrenees and along the Biscayan coast. Ethnically and historically the Basque territory extends from ~160km west-east and 50km north-south, from Bayonne (Basque - Baiona) to Bilbao (Bilbo) to Pamplona (Iruñea) with San Sebastián (Donostia) forming a natural centre of the region

Presently, Navarre (Nafarroa) constitutes its own autonomous region, while the French territories (Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea and Zuberoa) lost their political identity after the revolution.

There are approx. 3 million people living in the Basque country today, out of which more than 1 million are Spanish immigrants. The languages spoken are Spanish, French and Basque - Euskara (dialectal forms – Euskera, Eskuara). In the Spanish Basque country there are ~500,000 speakers of Euskara, using it as their first language (Euskaldun – lit. speaker of Basque). There are fewer than 80,000 speakers on the French side of the Basque country. There are also a number of Basque speakers in major Spanish and French cities, in Belgium, England, the US (Nevada, Idaho, California, Texas), Australia, Latin and South America.

The language is co-official with Spanish since the creation of the Basque Autonomous Region in 1979 in Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba. It has a degree of official status in Navarre, and no official status in France. The vast majority of the population is bilingual, but in central Gipuzkoa there are a number of elderly monoglots.

Euskara features a significant diversification into dialects, but these differ chiefly in vocabulary and phonology. The prominent Basque linguist Luis Michelena classified Euskara into 9 main dialects (Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, High Navarrese, Aezkoan, Salazarese, Roncalese, Lapurdian, Low Navarrese, Zuberoan). The largest numbers of speakers are found in Gipuzkoa, but western Gipuzkoan speech is classified as Bizkaian making this the most widespread dialect.

Since the demise of Franco there has been an extensive effort to resurrect Basque language – therefore there is now a substantial number of people speaking Basque as their second language (euskaldun berriak – new Basques).

 

Figure 1 Map of the Basque territories. The orange lines demark the area where there are significant numbers of Basque speakers today.

 

 

A brief history of the Basque Country

 

The Basque Country (Basque - Euskadi) has been inhabited more or less continually since Paleolithic times. There is extensive evidence of human activities from the upper Paleolithic, most notably in the form of cave art in limestone caves, the most important sites being (Otsozelaia (French part), Ekain (Gipuzkoa) and Santimamiñe (Bizkaia))

The Neolithic is likely to have seen an improving climate, and from the late Neolithic we have evidence, largely in the south, of pottery, agriculture and open-air settlements.

From the Bronze Age (2000-900 B.C.) there is clear evidence of a settled agrarian economy in the in the northern mountains. It is from this period that we have megalithic structures, the so called dolmens, in the northern Basque territory. Altogether archeological evidence points towards the presence of the same people, influenced, but uninvaded from the Paleolithic to the end of the Bronze Age.

From the Iron Age (900-200 BC) there are fortified settlements reminiscent of Celtic Iron Age culture, indicating a movement of Indo-Europeans into the Basque country during this age. The 2nd century B.C. saw the Roman invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, and the roman general Pompey founded Pompeiopolis (Pamplona), the first city in the Basque Country, in Navarre about 75 B.C. There are no records of fighting between Romans and Basques. The relationship appears to have been good, as witnessed by the presence of several early Latin derived words in Euskara. Otherwise there are few signs of Romanization. The Romans seem to have had little interest in colonizing the area, which is probably why Basque language is so well conserved. Basques fought alongside General Pompey in the Sertorian war, 87-72 B.C., which is when the Vascones (Basques) are first mentioned in Roman records.

After the collapse of Roman power in northern Spain the Basques violently resisted attempts at invasion by the Franks, the Arabs and the Visigoths. These people never managed to establish authority in the Basque Country. A famous battle took place in 778 when Basques ambushed and destroyed the Frankish army of Charlemagne at the Pyrenean pass of Roncevalles. The defeat is accredited to a vast muslim army in the epic Chanson de Roland. It is most likely during this time that rough boundaries of the modern Basque Country were established, and around 820 the Basque Iñigo Arista founded the tiny kingdom of Pamplona, later to evolve into the kingdom of Navarre which also briefly included the states of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa.

By the year 1200, the Navarrese kingdom had largely dissolved. Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, though nominally parts of the kingdom of Castile, were granted so called fueros, charters of self rule. As such Basque culture flourished in these terrirories. Democratic institutions appear to have evolved, and the prolific seamanship of the Basques took them as far as Iceland around 1400.

Due to their expertise as mariners, the Basques were instrumental to the expeditions of both Magellan and Columbus. The discovery of the new World had a tremendous impact on Basque society. Large numbers of sailors were needed by the Spanish Crown, as well as personnel to fill numerous administrative and practical functions in the colonies. As a result, scores of native Basques set out to seek their fortune, as is attested by the myriad of Basque geographical names in modern South America, from Durango in Mexico to the international airport of Ezeiza in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In 1514, what remained of the kingdom of Navarre was absorbed by Castile. This small kingdom in the Ebro valley represented the remnants of history’s only pan-Basque political entity in Spain. The economic and cultural split between the Biscayan provinces and the Navarrese regions of the Ebro valley would persist for centuries, cutting the Basque heartland off from its original capital of Pamplona. In the mountainous inlands of the Pyrenees the border between Spain and France was blurred. The Basques on both sides formed more or less autonomous communities, paying little regard to the laws and regulations of either government. During the Franco-Spanish wars of the 18th and early 19th centuries the people usually refused military service, and rather cooperated across the border, warning one another about coming military onslaughts. When the French and Spanish authorities eventually interfered with the local trade rules in the 19th century, the valley dwelling Basques unhesitatingly turned to smuggling.

            During the Carlist wars of the 19th century the coastal provinces backed the winning side of the liberal Cristinos while Navarre fought on the side of conservative Carlists. This century saw a gradual abolishment of Basque liberties granted in the fueros. Nevertheless the provinces continued to thrive. Technological advances spread from northern Europe and France, and while embracing these developments, traditional Basque culture appears to have been remarkably resilient to outside influences. Sabino Arana (1865-1903), widely known as the father of modern Basque patriotism, instigated a movement of Basque cultural awareness. He designed a national flag (the Ikurriña) and founded what would later become the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) which would emerge in 1920 as the dominant nationalist political force.

Upon the attempted right-wing coup in 1936 and the ensuing civil war (sometimes referred to as the third Carlist war), the Basque country was once again divided. The province of Araba and the formerly Carlist Navarre sided with the fascists. Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, on the other hand, took the side of the Republic, upholding their claim for autonomy. A statute of autonomy was granted in October of 1936, by which time the Basques were already deep in war. In July of the same year, Gipuzkoa was attacked by fascist troops and San Sebastian was overtaken the 13 of September. Several hundred thousand fled to Bizkaia. In early 1937, assisted by German fighter planes, the fascists launched an attack on Bizkaia, culminating in the infamous bombing of Guernika on 26 April. Bilbao fell in June that year. While the war raged on for the next two years, the fallen Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa were declared traitor provinces by Franco. Many Basques were sent to prison or concentration camps as punishment for their resistance, and the fascist years under Franco were to become the darkest in the long history of the Spanish Basque Country. All displays of regional identity, including the speaking of Basque, were prohibited by law. The exiled Basque government pressed for international intervention, but with the advent of the cold war, the Americans started seeing Franco as an allied in the fight against communism. The establishment of American airbases in fascist Spain extinguished all hope of outside help.

In 1953 a group of students in Bilbao founded a discussion and pressure group called Ekin (Get Busy). In 1959, a fraction of this group broke out and took the name Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). Meanwhile the brutality of the fascist security forces was stepped up and Basque towns were attacked indiscriminately. Against this backdrop, financed mainly by bank robberies, ETA took to increasingly violent means, initiating a row of assassinations targeting specific individuals who they deemed particularly detrimental to their cause. The violent transgressions of the police only turned more severe, and soon ETA started targeting random policemen and army officials. In 1973, Franco’s designated successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco was assassinated by an ETA unit, an incident which would prove to have great consequences for further political development in Spain. Upon Franco’s death in late 1975, there was no one in his immediate circle with the political clout to carry on the fascist regime. King Juan Carlos I assumed the throne, and a new provisory government was instated. The first democratic elections since the civil war were held in 1977. In 1979 a statute of autonomy was granted to the provinces of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. These provinces make up the modern autonomous Spanish community of the Pays Vasco. In a referendum the populace of Navarre voted against joining the new Basque community.

In the Biscayan provinces a grand restoration of Basque culture and language was undertaken. Basque language schools were set up with government funding, and a Basque university was established in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the new autonomous government. Even in this liberal political climate violence carried out by ETA hard-liners persisted. As a response a shady organization, GAL (Grupos Antiterrorista de Liberación), appeared. Liquidating suspected ETA members in both France and Spain, the group caused a major scandal as it was later linked to Spanish and French authorities.

In spite of sporadic terrorist incidents, the Basque country today remains a region of relative prosperity. Particularly in the provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa industry is flourishing, and industrial development has also reached the regions of Araba and Navarre.

 

 

A brief history of the Basque language

 

As a language Basque is genetically isolated. There is no evidence of relation to any existing form of speech, even though many claims to the contrary may be found in the literature. It seems certain, however, that an ancient language of southwest Gaul, Aquitanian, is an ancestor of the modern Basque language. Thus it would seem that Basque is the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe.

 

Before the Roman times there is not a single written word which can be safely regarded as being of Basque origin. The Romans found most of Gaul to be inhabited by Celts, save the southwest region which was inhabited by a people they called the Aquitanians. In Spain the situation was different. The Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by a people of unknown origin known as the Iberians. A substantial number of inscriptions in their Iberian language have been conserved, but most investigations conclude that the language is related to neither Basque nor other Indo-European languages. In different parts of the penisnsula Greek, Punic (a Semitic language), Tartessian (a language isolate) as well as Celtic languages were spoken. Of languages spoken in the western part of the peninsula we know very little.

Roman records mention several tribes of people living in the area which today constitutes the Basque Country, among them the Vascones (the name being the root of the Spanish vasco and the French basque). It seems likely that at least some of these tribes were speakers of a Basque language, even though only a handful of inscriptions of unmistakably Basque names from Roman times have been found in the region. Like the celtic languages, Aquitanian was probably largely displaced by Latin at an early date in Gaul. South of the Pyrenees, however, the language survived, spreading into the modern Basque territories and, judging by place names, beyond into the regions of La Rioja and Burgos to the southwest, and east into the present Catalan territory.

The earliest known connected phrases in Basque are found in the Emilian glosses, a manuscript usually dated to around 950. Also from the 10th century and onwards there are numerous documents recording Basque personal names and place names. The earliest glossary is that of the French pilgrim Aimery who visited the Basque country on his way to Santiago de Compostela during the 12th century. The first book ever to be published in Basque was issued in 1545. It was a collection of poems by the French Basque Bernat Etxepare. A translation of the New Testament followed in 1571 by another French Basque, Ioannes Leizarraga. From the 17th century there is a steady production of Basque literature, mostly written in the regional dialect of the writer (mainly Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, Lapurdian and Zuberoan), but attempts at standardized forms were also made. The first attempt at a comprehensive Basque grammar was published in 1729 by Padre Manuel Larramendi. The same author published a dictionary in 1745.

The first serious linguistic work on the Basque language was carried out by the German linguist and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1834). He held the view that Basque was a continuation of the ancient Iberian language. His linguistic approach, however, is considered somewhat backwards by modern researchers.

The authoritative figure in modern Basque linguistics is the Gipuzkoan Luis Michelena (1915-1987). He produced countless works on a wide span of topics from historical phonology via etymology and literature to dialectology and syntax. His best known book, Fonética Hisórica Vasca, published in 1977 remains the seminal work on Basque historical linguistics. Michelena also headed the effort of the Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Basque Language Academy, to devise a standard Basque, euskara batua.

The extent of the Basque speaking area south of the Pyrenees has been diminishing since the 17th century, the boundary retreating northward from the Ebro valley. Today Basque is spoken only in the northernmost parts of Navarre and Araba, as well as in Bizakia, Gipuzkoa and the French Basque provinces. The number of native speakers has in fact increased since the fall of Franco. The language nevertheless remains under heavy pressure from Spanish and French.

 

 

Euskara

 

The Basque alphabet is identical to the English, omitting the letters c, q, v, w and y, and including, as does Spanish, the palatal ñ. The language has no standard phonology, and variations are considerable among dialects.

Grammatically it is very distinct. It is usually referred to as an ergative-absolutive language, meaning that it maintains equivalence between objects of intransitive verbs and subjects of intransitive verbs while treating the subjects of transitive verbs differently. In contrast a nominative-accusative, such as English, has correspondence between subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs, but treats the objects distinctly. This can be exemplified by the following sentences:

 

           

Gizona etorri da.

The man has arrived.

 

The subject – Gizona (man) – follows the intransitive verb – etorri (arrive) – and takes on the absolutive case. The word – da – is the inflection of the noun phrase.

Consider the following sentence:

 

            Gizonak mutila ikusi du.

            The man saw the boy.

 

Here the subject – Gizonak (man) – follows the intransitive verb – ikusi (see) – and thus takes on the ergative case. The direct object – mutila (boy) – takes on the absolutive case as did the subject of the previous sentence.

Note also that Basque does not inflict nouns and verbs in sentences, only noun phrases are inflected by the use of agglutinated auxillaries like da and du, indicating time, person and number. Gender does not exist. Syntax is generally not rigid and the function of a word within a phrase is determined by its case.

Ergativity is relatively rare in existing languages, and is found only in the certain parts of the Caucasus (e.g. Georgia) and in certain native languages of the Americas and Australia.

The Basque lexicon varies strongly among dialects, many words being restricted to single valleys or towns. In addition there have been a myriad of neologisms, e.g. those coined by Sabino Arana, which have had various degrees of success. Today the Basque words with roots dating back to pre-Roman times are probably outnumbered by Romance and Latin loanwords. Never the less, basic Basque elements predominate in everyday speech. Such words are often concentrated around certain typical semantic categories such as numerals, pronouns, nouns pertaining to familiar terms like kinship, geographical features, body parts, indigenous animals and plants, tools, materials and natural phenomena. Included in the traditional Basque vocabulary are also common adjectives (e.g. big, old, hot, red etc.) and verbs (e.g. do, be, go, see etc.). More modern semantic areas, such as technology, law and government are, not surprisingly, dominated by loanwords.

 

 

Comparative linguistics – Euskara and other languages

 

Euskara, having a unique position among the languages of Western Europe, has received a great deal of attention from linguists worldwide. A veritable plethora of connections has been suggested: ancient Iberian, ancient Aquitanian, ancient Egyptian, Indo-european (especially Celtic, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Slavonic), Pictish, North African Berber languages, Sudanic, Semitic, Etruscan, Minoan, Sumerian, Munda languages of India, Uralic, Burushaski, Dravidian, Chikchi-Kamchatkan, Sino-Tibetan, Eskimo, the Na-Dene languages of North-America, as well as several other languages. The perhaps hottest candidates among existing languages have been those of the Caucasus. Comparative work has been carried out with various degrees of diligence, and much of the so called evidence brought forth has been based on mere similarities of a handful of lexical items. The actual data base of such conclusions is by most considered very dodgy. Researchers frequently neglect to include the presence of loan words and derivatives of late formation, as well as such obviously relevant features as syntax and grammar, in their analysis.

            A language group which deserves special attention in this context is the extended Caucasian family, comprising some 40 languages spoken in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. For the last century these languages have received, by far, the most attention by linguists searching for a genetic link to Basque. The connection is supported by a list of cognates, presumably of common derivation, as well as certain grammatical similarities, most notably the unlikely presence of ergativity, as discussed above. However, given the disputed existence of a common Caucasian language family, and the mind boggling lexical diversity within this group, it is hardly surprising that a large list of apparent cognates can be found when all 40 languages are considered. As for the grammatical similarities, ergativity is rare, but hardly unheard of in other languages by no means related to Basque or Caucasian. All in all the hypothesis of a Basque-Caucasian link has been dismissed by a majority of modern researchers.

            The perhaps most obvious candidate for a genetically connected language is the above mentioned Iberian. This long extinct language is known form numerous inscriptions in stone and metal dating to the first 5 centuries B.C. There has, however, never been such an archeological finding in any region known to have been Basque speaking, and attempts at providing a linguistic link to Basque have not been successful, partly due do difficulties in deciphering the ancient scripts, and the existence of a connection has been refuted by such prominent experts as Michelena. It does seem clear that Iberian is not Indo-European, and many researchers adhere to the hypothesis that it is of Berber origin.

            The only widely recognized link to Euskara is the ancient language of the Aquitain region of south-west Gaul. Roman records attest the presence in this area of a people distinct from the predominately Celtic population in this part of the empire, with an outlandish language from which almost 500 words are known form Latin texts. An extensive analysis by Michelena, published in 1954, established a genetic connection with Basque, about which there has been little dispute since.

            One popular theory states that Basque represents an ancient remnant of a language once spoken over large parts of Europe prior to the arrival of the first Indo-Europeans. This indigenous European language was subsequently supplanted during the next thousands of years, leaving the present day Basques as the only speakers of this linguistic relic. The hypothesis finds some support from comparative analysis of Basque cognates and cognates of other European languages, in particular Romance. A prerequisite of the theory is that the Indo-Europeans arrived in a linguistically homogenous Europe, something many researchers find hard to swallow. This hypothesis does, however, tie in nicely with the theory that Basques descended directly from the Cro-Magnon (inhabitants of upper Paleolithic Europe). Skeletons very similar to the original Cro-Magnon type found in the French Basque Country have been found at other, distant sites in Europe and even in the Middle East. If these people represent an ancestral European population, it is not unthinkable that they would have had a common root to their language. Some writers have gone even further, e.g. Bengtson and Ruhlen, proposing Basque as a major element in a Proto-World language. This extraordinary hypothesis is based of the notion that remnants of an ancestral language of all mankind are still discernable in languages of today, and the comparative analysis of cognate lexical items (e.g. bone, dog, hair), all of which bear a resemblance to Basque words with related meanings. The theory has found little favor with the linguistic establishment.

 

 

A genetic signature of the Basques

 

There is extensive biological evidence to the fact that the Basques are strikingly different from their neighboring peoples. Studies have shown a sharp genetic gradient to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and a diffuse gradient in France, with a strong Basque component in south-west France. These claims are supported by classical studies based on typing of blood groups. A 1947 paper in Nature by Mourant showed the world’s highest occurrence of the Rh- blood type in the Basque population. More recently these data have been backed by DNA studies. The biological evidence also harmonizes well with linguistic data.

Due to their anatomical and genetic singularities the Basques have been considered perhaps the most ancient inhabitants of Europe by biologists and anthropologists, and thus they have been a popular focus of study. The following quote is taken from a 1991 publication by the geneticists Cavalli-Sforza and Bertranpetit in the Annals of Human Genetics:

“...... the major difference in the Iberian Peninsula is that between people originally of Basque and non-Basque descent. The recession in time of the boundaries of the Basque-speaking area seems correlated with the progressive genetic dilution of the Basque genotype in modern populations, as we move away from the Basque area. Clearly there must have been a close relationship in the progressive loss of the Basque language and increasing admixture with neighbors. Most probably, Basques represent descendants of Paleolithic and/or Mesolithic populations and non-Basques later arrivals, beginning in the Neolithic.” (p. 51)

 

In this work Bertranpetit and Cavalli-Sforza carried out Principal Component Analysis of frequency scores on 54 genetic alleles for blood groups, serum proteins and enzymes, along with geographical scores. The results are compelling, clearly demonstrating the genetic separateness of the Basques. The writers conclude that the Paleolithic and Mesolithic inhabitants of the Basque area remained relatively unchanged by people arriving in the peninsula during the Neolithic, while considerable genetic dilution took place in the surrounding areas. They further hypothesize that this genetic uniqueness is likely tied to a prolonged period of genetic drift in a small population, living in a state of isolation brought about by geographical features of the region and by endogamy tied to separateness of language and culture.

A 2005 paper by Pérez-Miranda et al. reports the analysis of 13 microsatelite genetic loci in European, African and Asian populations. This study also detects a clear genetic separation of the Basques from populations of Europe, the Middle East and North-Africa. The study also suggested a subpopulation structuring within the Basque areas of Spain. Such internal genetic heterogeneities have also been reported by other writers. Gipuzkoa and Northern Navarre displayed the most uniquely Basque genotype, Bizkaia had an intermediate type, while Araba diverged the most from the Basque cluster. This can be explained in terms of geography and economic history, and it agrees with the linguistic map of the Basque country. According to a report issued by the Basque Government in 1995, The continuity of the Basque language, the proportions of people using Euskara as their primary form of communication are 44% in Gipuzkoa, 24% in Bizkaia, 15% in Araba and 14% in Navarra where a significant number of Basque speakers can be found only in the northernmost part of the province. To date, small villages in northern Navarra, Gipuzkoa and western Bizkaia maintain a traditional socioculture of the autochtonous Basque society. Such villages have a deeply rooted farming economy, and consanguinity has traditionally been a part of the marital structure. This way of life is thought to represent the historical organization of Basque society. The variety of dialects in different parts of the Basque territory may also be attributed to their traditional lifestyle, which again would enforce the genetic structuring of subpopulations.

A 2005 study by Diéterlen and Lucotte reports the analysis of TaqI restriction patterns of Y-chromosomes in 3700 samples from 46 localities in Europe, North-Africa and the Middle East. The dominant haplotype in Western Europe was XV. This haplotype has the highest frequency in the Basque Country, and the frequency decreases along a gradient from this focal point. These results are compatible with the theory stating that Basques represent an ancient population in Europe. The observed decline in haplotype frequencies may have resulted from a progressive dilution of originally western European haplotypes due to a Neolithic wave of expansion of Indo-Europeans into the region. Judging by genetic and linguistic data it appears that the inhabitants of the Basque Country were affected to a much lesser degree than other ancient European peoples. However, given the prevalence of haplotype XV in Western Europe it is possible that the genetic substrate prior to the Indo-European expansion was of a type related to the present day Basque type.

Results from analysis of mitochondrial DNA have been more dubious. A few studies have focused on the ancient burial ground of Aldaieta in central Araba. The cemetery is usually dated to the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. Ancient mtDNA (~5000 years old) has also been recovered from Pico Ramos in Western Bizkaia, San Juan Ante Portam Latinam and Longar, the latter two sites being located near the border between southern Araba and Navarre in the Ebro valley. The haplotype frequencies of the three most ancient sites were found to be significantly different form those of present day Basques. Also the frequencies observed at Aldaieta differed from those of the three prehistorical sites as well as from those of modern Basques, displaying some haplotypes related to North-African types in addition to Basque types. These results suggest that there have been evolutionary events taking place in the Basque country since prehistoric times. On the other hand all the sites sampled are located on the fringes of historical and present Basque homelands. As such it should not be surprising that contact with non-Basques would take place in these areas.

Finally it is worth mentioning that the Basque-Caucasian link has been investigated by means of genetic analysis. A 2001 study by Sanchez-Velasco and Leyva-Cobian compared HLA class I and II allele frequencies of the Svan population of the Republic of Georgia to those of other Europeans and East Asians. The authors concluded that no typical Basque haplotypes were found in significant frequencies in the Caucasian population. The populations most closely resembling the Svans were Czechs, Rumanians and Armenians, whereas populations of Northern Spain were clearly separated form this cluster.

 

Concluding remarks

 

Today the Basque Country is confined to an area of ~10.000 km2, wedged between the mighty European states of Spain and France. Over millennia of wars, attempted invasion and political domination from neighboring peoples, the Basques have managed to maintain their identity as an ethnic unit. Perhaps most striking is the native Basque language of Euskara, the outlandishness of which has baffled linguists for centuries. Being speakers of a non Indo-European language, it seems reasonable to assume that the Euskaldun represent the only surviving indigenous group of significant non-Indo-European origin in Western Europe today. Thus we have the attractive hypothesis that the Basques are descended directly from the Cro-Magnon. Considering the facts; the first excavations of Cro-Magnon skeletons were carried out at Les Eyzies in the département of Dordogne in the French Basque Country. This is historically part of the Aquitaine region, an extinct language of which has been conserved through written fragments. There is little doubt that Aquitanian is a predecessor of modern day Basque. Physical anthropologists have referred to Basque characteristics as being paleomorphic, i.e. as having a skeletal morphology related to that of the upper Paleolithic. This morphological type is represented chiefly by the Cro-Magnon, as opposed to the Mediterranean type which predominates in the rest of Mesolithic Iberia. Studies of genetic markers have also gone far in concluding that Basques are of separate origin from inhabitants other parts of Europe, having high frequencies of genotypes thought to represent very ancient lineages. One way the Basque-Cro-Magnon link might be tested in the future is by comparison of ancient DNA material from archeological Cro-Magnon remnants with DNA form current autochtonous Basque populations. To the knowledge of this writer such a study has not been undertake to date.

 

 

References:

 

 

Alfonso-Sánchez et al. (2005), Inbreeding levels and consanguinity structure in the Basque Province of Guipúzcoa (1862-1980), American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 127, 240-252

Alzualde A. et al. (2005), Temporal mitochondrial DNA variation in the Basque Country: Influence of post-Neolithic events, Annals of Human Genetics, 69, 665-679

Alzualde A. et al. (2006), Insights into the “Isolation” of the Basques: mtDNA Lineages from the Historical site of Aldaieta (6th – 7th centuries AD), American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Epub ahead of print

Bertranpetit J. and Cavalli-Sforza L.L. (1991), A genetic reconstruction of the history of the population of the Iberian Peninsula, Annals of Human Genetics, 55, 51-67

Collins R. (1986), The Basques, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford

Diéterlen F. and Lucotte G. (2005), Haplotype XV of the Y-chromosome is the main haplotype in West-Europe, Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 59, 269-272

Dupanloup I. et al. (2004),Estimating the impact of prehistoric admixture on the genome of Europeans, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 21, 1361-1372

García O. et al. (2004), A Basque Country autochtonous population study of 11 Y-chromosome loci, Forensic Science International, 145, 65-68

Iriondo M. et al. (2003), DNA polymorphisms detect ancient barriers to gene flow in Basques, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 122, 73-84

Kurlansky M. (1999), The Basque History of the World, Walker & Company, New York

de Pancorbo M.M. et al. (2001), The Basques according to polymorphic Alu insertions, Human Genetics, 109, 224-233

Pérez-Miranda et al. (2005), Microsatelite data support subpopulation structuring among Basques, Journal of Human Genetics, 50, 403-414

Sanchez-Velasco P. and Levya-Cobian F. (2001), The HLA class I and class II allele frequencies studied at the DNA level in the Svanetian population (Upper Caucasus) and their relationships to Western European populations, Tissue Antigens, 58, 223-233

Trask R.L. (1997), The History of Basque, Routledge, London