Who are the Basque?

There was a recent human interest story. It was a rare type of report to hear in the news.

A runner was the clear winner as he approached the end of the race, but he thought he had already crossed the finishing line and slowed down. The runner a little ways behind him caught up. This other guy could have run past and taken first place. Instead, he chose not to take advantage of the situation. He pointed out the actual finishing line and let the guy in the lead to keep his lead.

That is an unexpected response. Sports, especially in the United States, is typically portrayed as win or lose and that is all that matters. I would have been shocked if he had been an American athlete who put sportsmanship before winning, but that wasn’t the case.

The one in the lead was a Kenyan and the one in second place was a Basque. The Basque people have one of the most interesting histories in Europe. Their home region is in a mountainous region between Spain and France, and this particular Basque was of Spanish nationality. By American standards, at least, the Basque would most likely be labeled white, although they are somewhat genetically unique as a population. The Kenyan, on the other hand was black.

So, from a xenophobic mentality, there was no reason for one of these guys to do a kindness to the other guy. Competitive sports often touch on deep cultural issues. Individuals play sports not just to prove themselves best but also their group the best.

The divide between these two guys was immense. It was simultaneously a divide between competitors, nationalities, ethnicities, and races. However, the Basque runner apparently didn’t see the world in those terms. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with him being Basque. Knowing their proud history of an isolated and independent society, if anything, I might expect a Basque runner to be more competitively tribalistic.

I doubt this story really has much of anything to do with his being Basque, but that was what caught my eye. I’ve been interested in the Basque for years now. I thought I’d take the opportunity to offer some passages from a few books and following that some links to more information. The Basque are a fascinating people.

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Some of Champlain’s best sources were Basque whalers and fishermen— French Basques and Spanish Basques as he called them. Their whaling stations dotted the American coast from Labrador to the Gulf of Maine for many years. They developed the technology of whale hunting and invented the light and graceful whaleboats that would be used for many centuries.

Later, Champlain got to know a Basque named Captain Savalette, a “fine old seaman” who hailed from the French port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. They first met in 1607, on Savalette’s forty-second voyage to North America. He had been making annual Atlantic crossings for many years—eighty-three of them since 1565, before Champlain was born. Captain Savalette and his crew of sixteen men worked near Canso in what is now Nova Scotia, operating out of a little fishing cove that Champlain later named in his honor. The work was perilous, but highly profitable. In a good year they took home 100,000 big cod , which brought as much as five crowns apiece on the Paris market.

Through the sixteenth century, the Basques also traded with Indians, who wanted iron pots, copper pans, steel knives, metal arrowheads, and woolen textiles such as red blankets from Catalonia.

In return, the Basques wanted furs. So strong was the European demand that the rate of exchange for a fine beaver pelt rose from one knife to eighty knives in the course of Captain Savalette’s career. Europeans also traded for products of the forest: sassafras was valued as a medicinal tea, and ginseng as a sexual restorative. By 1600, Native Americans had become aggressive entrepreneurs. Some Indians got the jump on competitors by acquiring European shallops and meeting European vessels at sea— a maritime equivalent of forestalling the market.

A complex web of cultural relations had developed between Europeans and American Indians long before Champlain came to the new world. The northern coast acquired a unique trading language, a pidgin speech borrowed from many tongues. Much of it was Basque and Algonquian. A startling example is the word Iroquois. Linguists conclude that it was a complex coinage in the pidgin speech of the North American coast— a French understanding of an Algonquian version of two Basque words that meant “killer people.” The term was well established when Champlain became the first to publish it in 1603.

Fischer, David Hackett (2008-10-14). Champlain’s Dream (Kindle Locations 2063-2085). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

By Champlain’s time, Basque whalers in New France had invented the beautiful and very light whaleboat, double-ended with incredibly thin strakes, which oarsmen could send skimming across the water. They were not invented by Nantucket Yankees. French and Spanish Basques developed them from Biscayan shallops, called chalupas in Basque. They were framed from naturally curved oak and planked with very thin oak strakes, clinker-built above the waterline and carvel-built below to reduce drag and increase speed. They could carry a crew of seven or eight. These chalupas were in use on the coast of Labrador and the lower St. Lawrence River by 1600. Maritime archaeologists from Red Bay, Labrador have recovered early examples, remarkably intact.

Fischer, David Hackett (2008-10-14). Champlain’s Dream (Kindle Locations 11994-11999). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

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One observation shines bright from the genetics. The bulk of informative male gene markers among the so-called Atlantic Celts are derived from down in south-west Europe, best represented by people of the Basque Country. What is more, they share this Atlantic coastal link with certain dated expansions of mtDNA gene groups, representing each of the main, archaeologically dated, putative colonization events of the western British Isles. One might expect the original Mesolithic hunter-gatherer colonists of the Atlantic coast, over 10,000 years ago, to have derived from the Ice Age refuges of the western Mediterranean: Spain, south-west France and the Basque Country. And that was indeed the case: shared genetic elements, both in the British Isles and Iberia, did include such Mesolithic mtDNA founding gene lines originating in the Basque region.

Perhaps more surprising and pleasing was the identification, among ‘Atlantic Celts’, of gene lines which arrived later, in the British Neolithic period, deriving ultimately from the very first farming communities in Turkey. The British Neolithic began over 6,000 years ago, but the archaeological and genetic evidence points to two separate arms, or pincer routes, of Neolithic migration into the British Isles from different parts of Europe, each with its own cultural precursors and human genetic trail markers. Most Neolithic migration more culturally than genetically is apparent, but in this instance human migration is supported by genetic evidence.

One of these migrations may have come up the Atlantic coast and into Cornwall, Ireland and Wales, preceded in France by the arrival of a particular pottery type known as Cardial Impressed Ware. Cardial Ware had in turn spread mainly by sea, west along the northern Mediterranean coast via Italy and the Riviera, and then across southern France to arrive near Brittany by around 7,000 years ago. In parallel with this cultural flow, specific gene lines appear to have travelled along the northern Mediterranean coast, round Spain and directly through southern France to the British Isles. In the case of this real Neolithic migration, however, the Basque Country seems to have been partly bypassed. The other Neolithic migration went up the Danube from the Black Sea to Germany and the Netherlands (but more of that later).

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 353-370). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

As to who and what were the main British ancestors, we can say they were largely Ice Age hunting families from Spain, Portugal and the south of France. The Basque region still preserves the closest genetic image of the Ice Age refuge community. Obviously, the Basque refuge area has since received intrusions of its own, particularly from the Mediterranean and North Africa, but these still constitute only a small percentage of that region’s present-day gene pool.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2192-2195). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

In total, around 27%52 of modern British men can claim descent through their fathers from the seven clusters arriving in this early post-LGM period. This is certainly within the bracket of the 25–42% I estimated for maternal descent, but obviously nearer the lower limit of 25%. But even a 30% contribution of Basque Late Upper Palaeolithic male and female ancestors for modern British imposes a completely different balance on our ‘roots’ perspectives.

I shall return to the events taking place after the 13,000-year threshold, but it is likely that this genetic watershed between the initial Late Upper Palaeolithic recolonization period and what came later, during the Mesolithic, is not just a genetic accident. The watershed may reflect the profound climatic reversal that occurred 13,000 years ago, known as the Younger Dryas Event, a short worldwide freeze-up which ended abruptly around 11,500 years ago with another equally dramatic warm-up (see below).

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2323-2332). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

whatever languages those early hunters and gatherers may have spoken it was unlikely to have been celtic or Germanic. In fact, sub-structural linguistic evidence within both these modern branches of Indo-European suggests the oldest language of the British Isles may have been more like Basque.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 2469-2472). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

A less obvious problem is the fixation in all the academic literature on celtic languages to the exclusion of any others. While it is generally accepted that there were other languages, probably non-Indo-European, in the British Isles before celtic, few have speculated as to what these may have been or as to whether there were non-Indo-European influences persisting from before the arrival of celtic in the Isles. Munich-based German linguist Theo Vennemann has addressed all of these issues and although his reconstruction is controversial, there are extraordinary resonances with the genetic picture.110 First, Vennemann argues for an ancient post-glacial European language sub-stratum on the basis of river-names. He calls this language family Vasconic (i.e. linguistically like the Basque and as with their re-expansion, originating in the Basque refuge and spreading north, west and east). This sub-stratum was progressively overlaid from southeast Europe by Indo-European during the Neolithic starting from 7,500 years ago, moving through central Europe and reaching Scandinavia by 6,000 years ago.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 3909-3917). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

The secret fascination of the Indo-European language family for prehistorians is that there are very few extant languages in Europe that belong to other families. The exceptions are famous in that they break the rule. Apart from some European members of the Uralic family (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and Saami), Basque is the most widely touted exception since it has no known relatives at all and has a special pride of place for geneticists. The Basque Country is not only one of the central locations of the West European Ice Age refuge, but there are clear genetic and cultural differences between Basques and the surrounding populations. As I have mentioned, these differences have been overstated – the Basques are a genetically representative population for south-west Europe who were conserved and isolated and largely bypassed during the Neolithic. Some linguists even detect substratum evidence of Basque in structural aspects of English and insular celtic languages. However, in Roman times they were not the only linguistic exception: Iberian was another, totally different, non-Indo-European language.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 4327-4334). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

There certainly is a deep genetic division between peoples of the west and east coasts of the British Isles, particularly between the English and the Welsh, but this does not merely reflect the Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions. These were only the most recent of a succession of waves of cultural and genetic influx from north-west Europe, going back to the first farmers and before. Even the first settlers to come up from the Basque Ice Age refuge left different genetic traces on the east and west coasts of Britain. That difference was merely added to by subsequent migrations across the North Sea.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 6894-6898). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

The arrival of celtic languages and associated gene flow could hardly be classed as evidence for the establishment of a Celtic replacement of a former unknown British population on genetic grounds. The highest single rate of Neolithic intrusion from the Mediterranean route in the British Isles was in Abergele at 33%. But in Ireland, such Neolithic intrusion was only around 4%, while it was 2% in Cornwall, 6–9% in the two Welsh peninsulas, and 8–11% in the Channel Islands and southern England (Figures 5.6 and 5.8). For England and the Channel Islands, the Neolithic contribution from the East via the northern route, just across the North Sea, was the same or greater than for the Atlantic coastal source (Figure 5.7).

In other words, Ireland and the Welsh peninsulas – which, on the basis of recent history and language, might be thought to be Celtic bastions – have less evidence of Neolithic genetic intrusions, let alone from the Bronze or Iron Age, than anywhere else in the British Isles. Of course, the flip side of this is that their descendants are truly aboriginal and genetically represent the most conservative parts of the British Isles, retaining respectively 88% and 89% of their pre-Neolithic founding lineages (Figure 11.5a). And where do those founding lineages come from? They come from the same part of Europe, the southwest, but more specifically they match the equally conservative region of the Basque Country.

Ultimately ancestors for the modern Irish population, male and female did come from the same region as those ancient celtic inscriptions, but thousands of years before celtic languages. But then every other sample in the British Isles shows at least 60% retention of those pre-Neolithic aboriginal male founders, reflecting the very conservative nature of the British Isles after the Last Glacial Maximum.

Translating all this back to question the assumption that ‘Celts’, however defined, were the aboriginal peoples of the British Isles, we can see new perspectives, which depend on how that definition is applied. First, if Celts were to be defined by their languages, the small proportion of associated gene flow would make them an invading cultural elite with no stronger claims to aboriginal status than the Anglo-Saxons. If we focused more specifically on those 2–10% of immigrating southern Neolithic, Bronze or Iron Age genes as identifying people rather than language, they would be even less ‘aboriginal’ in Ireland and Wales than in the rest of the British Isles.

I think we should take Cunliffe’s gradualist concept of the Longue Durée of the Atlantic cultural network as a paradigm for the genetics, as Irish geneticists Brian McEvoy and Dan Bradley of Trinity College Dublin, with English colleagues Martin Richards and Peter Forster, have done. Rather than being on the fringe of a celtic-speaking Neolithic revolution, the Atlantic fringe countries of Ireland and peninsular Wales then become the genetic aboriginal strongholds of post-LGM and Mesolithic gene flow from the Iberian glacial refuge, now best represented in south-west Europe by the equally conservative genetic profile of the Basque Country. The rest of Britain and the northern isles off Scotland then become more or less aboriginal with rates varying from 60% to 80% of ‘indigenous’ male markers (Figure 11.5a). In a sense, this is similar to the position taken on the Y gene group markers of ‘the indigenous population of the British Isles’ by geneticist Cristian Capelli (see Chapter 11), only my estimates for indigenous survival are much higher.

Oppenheimer (2012-03-01). The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain (Kindle Locations 6946-6975). Constable Robinson. Kindle Edition.

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And in truth, the first tentative engagements occurred well before that— at least a thousand years ago, when the Vikings tried to colonize eastern Canada, and the Basques surreptitiously discovered , as early as the fifteenth century, the great cod and whale fisheries off eastern Canada and New England. It’s difficult to say exactly when the tightlipped Basques first arrived; by the time the French and English showed up around 1600, they found Mi’kmaq Indians who were fluent in the Basque trading language and who skillfully sailed Basque-made shallops. One stunned Frenchman saw a Mi’kmaq glide by with an immense red moose painted jauntily on his sail. The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America looks at how these unimaginably different cultures grew steadily more similar through the centuries and yet remained stubbornly, and in the end tragically, estranged.

Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 153-159). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Eventually, though, the skrælings drove the Vikings out of Vinland, although evidence suggests that the Norse continued to make periodic voyages there for perhaps several hundred years more, until cooling climatic conditions drove their Greenland colony into extinction around 1400.% 2 By then, other Europeans were coming regularly to what was referred to as Hy-Brasil, the Seven Cities, or the Isles of Antilla, all names for imagined lands west of Ireland. Dreamers assumed Hy-Brasil was a place of great wealth and opulence; doubters scoffed that it was just a myth . But the Basques knew it was a very real place—the land of bakailao, or cod.

Not that they were telling anyone. Basque fishermen may have been making trips to the northeastern coast of North America as early as the thirteenth or fourteenth century, reaping the unimaginable bounty of the cod-rich fishing banks off Newfoundland and the Maritimes. Certainly by the fifteenth century, they were regularly crossing the North Atlantic for the summer fishing season, landing to salt and dry their catch, then bringing it back to Catholic Europe, required to eat fish half the days of the ecclesiastical year.

Good businessmen , the Basques kept their mouths shut about their sources, but by the 1480s English fishermen from Bristol were seeking the cod grounds as well, and may have found them. When Giovanni Caboto (better known as John Cabot) “discovered” his “New Found Ile Land” in 1497, it was no doubt to the disgust of the Basques, who’d had a pretty good thing going there for centuries. Jacques Cartier, setting out in 1534 on behalf of France, relied on directions from Breton fishermen who had been going there for years. When Cartier sailed into the mouth of the St. Lawrence , he was greeted by so many Mi’kmaqs and Montagnais (Innu), long accustomed to European visitors and waving furs to trade from the shore, that his nerve deserted him and he fired guns to scare them off.

Basque whalers came, too. In 1412 a fleet of 20 whaling ships passed Iceland, heading west. Beginning in the 1530s, as many as 600 men a year came to hunt right and bowhead whales, setting up seasonal camps along the Labrador coast. By the summer of 1578 , more than 350 European vessels were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland, with another 20 or 30 Spanish whalers working the waters between Newfoundland and Labrador. In all, some 20,000 Europeans were employed seasonally in the cod and whale fisheries there. Within two years, the French fleet had grown from 150 to 500 ships.

In 1583 , Sir Humphrey Gilbert found the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland , choked with foreign boats— which did not stop him from striding ashore and cutting the thick turf to ceremonially take possession of the land for England, thus formally establishing the English empire. The Basque, Portuguese, and Breton fishermen— never mind the native Beothuk— were unimpressed.

If Ktə̀hαnəto had been able to talk to the Indians of the Southeast coast, he’d have gotten an earful about Europeans, none of it good. When the Spaniard Ponce de León explored Florida in 1513, the Calusa Indians tried to cut his anchor lines from shielded canoes, while carefully keeping out of range of his ships’ cannons and crossbows, suggesting they’d already learned the hard way to be careful around European weaponry. The hostile reception and the lack of rich gold and silver mines like those found in Mesoamerica kept Spanish colonization at bay for decades.

Not that they didn’t try. In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón and six hundred colonists sailed from Hispaniola up the North American coast, founding the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape . Just where they tried to settle has been placed variously on the Pee Dee River in South Carolina and Sapelo Island in Georgia. Whatever the location, within three months the colony went bust, Ayllón was dead, and fewer than a third of the colonists were able to limp back to Hispaniola.

French Huguenots tried to settle at Fort Caroline (now Jacksonville, Florida) in 1564, and that was enough to prod the Spanish into decisive action. They massacred the French, established St. Augustine the following year, and salted the coasts of Florida and Georgia with forts to protect their treasure fleets and with missions to convert and control the Indians. The Timucua, who had helped the French colonists , dwindled quickly toward extinction. The Guale, who had already tangled with Ayllón, rose up twice against their invaders, as part of a regional revolt in 1576 and again in 1597 in an especially violent insurrection. Both times, the Spanish retaliated by burning Guale towns wholesale. But the microbial assault from the Europeans was far worse. By 1600, diseases introduced by the Spanish had reduced what may have been a pre-contact population of 1.3 million people in the Southeast to less than a sixth that number.

The centuries of contact between northeastern tribes and Europeans also had left their mark. Three years before Waymouth’s voyage, Bartholomew Gosnold was sailing along the Maine coast. To his shock, he encountered a party of six or eight Indians expertly sailing “a Baske-shallop with mast and sails, an iron grapple, and a kettle of copper . . . one of them apparelled with a waistcoat and breeches of black serge, made after our sea-fashion, hose and shoes on his feet .” Onboard Gosnold’s ship, the Indian commander drew a chalk map of the coast and mentioned the Newfoundland fishing harbor of Placentia, whose name came from plazenta, the Basque word for “pleasantness.”

“They spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we,” one of Gosnold’s companions wrote. No doubt the Indians, using the trade pidgin long employed with the Basques, were surprised by the newcomers ’ obtuseness . By the early 1600s, pidgin Basque was the lingua franca of Northeast trade, and the coastal people of the Maritimes were fluent when meeting their adesquides. Mathieu Da Costa— a free black man whose skills as an interpreter commanded a handsome price among Dutch and French traders— was able to make himself understood to the Mi’kmaq and Montagnais in the first years of the seventeenth century, probably using another form of Basque pidgin that had developed on the slave coast of Africa. One early-seventeenth-century visitor to the Maritimes observed that “the language of the coast tribes is half Basque.”

Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 541-588). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

And that was the face of the East at the moment when the first regular contacts began between the New World and the Old: the close-mouth Basques trading iron kettles for furs while their catch dried in the sun; the Bristol merchants sniffing along behind them to find the source of the cod ; the trickle of ships that would soon become a colonizing flood.

Weidensaul, Scott (2012-02-08). The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America’ (Kindle Locations 1326-1328). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

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As well as being instrumental in getting Arthur Mourant a job, the Rhesus blood groups were also about to play a central role in what people were thinking about the origins of modern Europeans and in identifying the continent’s most influential genetic population – the fiercely independent Basques of north-west Spain and south-west France. The Basques are unified by their common language, Euskara, which is unique in Europe in that it has no linguistic connection with any other living language. That it survives at all in the face of its modern rivals, Castilian Spanish and French, is remarkable enough. But two thousand years ago, it was only the disruption of imperial Roman administration in that part of the empire that saved Euskara from being completely swamped by Latin, which was the fate of the now extinct Iberian language in eastern Spain and south-east France. The Basques provided us with an invaluable clue to the genetic history of the whole of Europe, as we shall see later in the book, but their elevation to special genetic status only began when Arthur Mourant started to look closely at the Rhesus blood groups.

Most people have heard about the Rhesus blood groups in connection with ‘blue baby syndrome’ or ‘haemolytic disease of the new-born’ to give it its full medical title. This serious and often fatal condition affects the second or subsequent pregnancy of mothers who are ‘Rhesus negative’ – that is, who do not possess the Rhesus antigen on the surface of their red blood cells. What happens is this. When a Rhesus negative mother bears the child of a Rhesus positive father (whose red blood cells do carry the Rhesus antigen), there is a high probability that the foetus will be Rhesus positive. This is not a problem for the first child; but, when it is being born, a few of its red blood cells may get into the mother’s circulation. The mother’s immune system recognizes these cells, with their Rhesus antigen, as foreign, and begins to make antibodies against them. That isn’t a problem for her until she becomes pregnant with her next child. If this foetus is also Rhesus positive then it will be attacked by her anti-Rhesus antibodies as they pass across the placenta. New-born babies affected in this way, who appear blue through lack of oxygen in their blood, could sometimes be rescued by a blood transfusion, but this was a risky procedure. Fortunately, ‘blue baby syndrome’ is no longer a severe clinical problem today. All Rhesus negative mothers are now given an injection of antibodies against Rhesus positive blood cells, so that if any do manage to get into her circulation during the birth of her first child they will be mopped up before her immune system has a chance to find them and start to make antibodies.

The significance of all this to the thinking about European prehistory is that Mourant realized that having two Rhesus blood groups in a single population did not make any evolutionary sense. Even the simplest calculations showed that losing so many babies was not a stable arrangement. There was no problem if everybody had the same Rhesus type. It didn’t matter whether this was Rhesus positive or Rhesus negative, just so long as it was all one or the other. It was only when there were people with different Rhesus types breeding together that these very serious problems arose. In the past, before blood transfusions and before the antibody treatment for Rhesus negative mothers, there must have been a lot of babies dying from haemolytic disease. This is a very heavy evolutionary burden, and the expected result of this unbalanced situation would be that one or other of the Rhesus blood groups would eventually disappear. And this is exactly what has happened – everywhere except in Europe. While the rest of the world is predominantly Rhesus positive, Europe stands out as having a very nearly equal frequency of both types. To Mourant, this was a signal that the population of Europe was a mixture that had not yet had time to settle down and eliminate one or other of the Rhesus types. His explanation was that modern Europe might be a relatively recent hybrid population of Rhesus positive arrivals from the Near East, probably the people who brought farming into Europe beginning about eight thousand years ago, and the descendants of an earlier Rhesus negative hunter-gathering people. But who were the Rhesus negatives?

Mourant came across the work of the French anthropologist H. V. Vallois, who described features of the skeletons of contemporary Basques as having more in common with fossil humans from about twenty thousand years ago than with modern people from other parts of Europe. Though this kind of comparison has since fallen into disrepute, it certainly catalysed Mourant’s thinking. It was already known that Basques had by far the lowest frequency of blood group B of all the population groups in Europe. Could they be the ancient reservoir of Rhesus negative as well? In 1947 Mourant arranged to meet with two Basques who were in London attempting to form a provisional government and were keen to support any attempts to prove their genetic uniqueness. Like most Basques, they were supporters of the French Resistance and totally opposed to the fascist Franco regime in Spain. Both men provided blood samples and both were Rhesus negative. Through these contacts, Mourant typed a panel of French and Spanish Basques who turned out, as he had hoped, to have a very high frequency of Rhesus negatives, in fact the highest in the world. Mourant concluded from this that the Basques were descended from the original inhabitants of Europe, whereas all other Europeans were a mixture of originals and more recent arrivals, which he thought were the first farmers from the Near East.

From that moment, the Basques assumed the status of the population against which all ideas about European genetic prehistory were to be – and to a large extent still are – judged. The fact that they alone of all the west Europeans spoke a language which was unique in Europe, and did not belong to the Indo-European family which embraces all other languages of western Europe, only enhanced their special position.

Sykes, Bryan (2010-12-20). The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (Kindle Locations 575-619). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

When we applied exactly the same procedure to the clusters in Europe we got a surprise. We had been expecting relatively young dates, though not as young as in Polynesia, because of the overwhelming influence of the agricultural migrations from the Near East in the last ten thousand years that were so prominent a feature in the textbooks. But six out of the seven clusters had genetic ages much older than ten thousand years. According to the version of Europe’s genetic history that we had all been brought up on, a population explosion in the Near East due to agriculture was followed by the slow but unstoppable advance of these same people into Europe, overwhelming the sparse population of hunter–gatherers. Surely, if this were true, the genetic dates for the mitochondrial clusters, or most of them at least, would have to be ten thousand years or less. But only one of the seven clusters fitted this description. The other six were much older. We rechecked our sequences. Had we scored too many mutations? No. We rechecked our calculations. They were fine. This was certainly a puzzle; but still we didn’t question the established dogma – until we looked at the Basques.

For reasons discussed in an earlier chapter, the Basques have long been considered the last survivors of the original hunter–gatherer population of Europe. Speaking a fundamentally different language and living in a part of Europe that was the last to embrace agriculture, the Basques have all the hallmarks of a unique population and they are proud of their distinctiveness. If the rest of Europe traced their ancestry back to the Near Eastern farmers, then surely the Basques, the last survivors of the age of the hunter–gatherers, should have a very different spectrum of mitochondrial sequences. We could expect to find clusters which we saw nowhere else; and we would expect not to find clusters that are common elsewhere. But when we pulled out the sequences from our Basque friends, they were anything but peculiar. They were just like all the other Europeans – with one noticeable exception: while they had representatives of all six of the old clusters, they had none at all of the seventh cluster with the much younger date. We got hold of some more Basque samples. The answer was the same. Rather than having very unusual sequences, the Basques were as European as any other Europeans. This could not be fitted into the scenario in which hunters were swept aside by an incoming tide of Neolithic farmers. If the Basques were the descendants of the original Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers, then so were most of the rest of us.

But what about the cluster that was absent from the Basques – the cluster that was distinguished from the rest by having a much younger date compatible with the Neolithic? When we plotted the places where we found this cluster on a map of Europe, we found a remarkable pattern. The six old clusters were to be found all over the continent, though some were commoner in one place than in others. The young cluster, on the other hand, had a very distinctive distribution. It split into two branches, each with a slightly different set of mutations. One branch headed up from the Balkans across the Hungarian plain and along the river valleys of central Europe to the Baltic Sea. The other was confined to the Mediterranean coast as far as Spain, then could be traced around the coast of Portugal and up the Atlantic coast to western Britain. These two genetic routes were exactly the same as had been followed by the very first farmers, according to the archaeology. Early farming sites in Europe are instantly recognizable by the type of pottery they contain, just as Lapita ceramics identify the early Polynesian sites in the Pacific. The push through central Europe from the Balkans, which began about seven and a half thousand years ago, is recorded by the presence at these early sites of a distinctive decorative style called Linear pottery, in which the vessels are incised with abstract geometric designs cut into the clay. The Linear pottery sites map out a slice of central Europe where, even today, one branch of the young cluster is still concentrated. In the central and western Mediterranean, early farming sites are identified by another style of pottery, called Impressed ware because the clay is marked with the impressions of objects, often shells, which have been pressed into the clay before firing. Once again, the concordant distribution of Impressed ware sites and the other branch of the young cluster stood out. This didn’t look like a coincidence. The two branches of the young mitochondrial cluster seemed to be tracing the footsteps of the very first farmers as they made their way into Europe.

Sykes, Bryan (2010-12-20). The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry (Kindle Locations 1909-1942). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

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What those pre-Celtic languages sounded like may not be entirely a matter of guesswork or even more scholarly reconstruction. Euskera, the Basque language, has survived against all odds in an Atlantic-facing enclave and it certainly not only predates Celtic but also all the other Indo-European languages. Basic Basque words are very different: gizon for ‘man’, andere for ‘lady’, neskaro for ‘girl’ and bihotz for ‘heart’. It may well be that the language has survived because its geography prevented outside influence. Distributed on either side of the Pyrenees, the Basque communities live on a rocky Atlantic coastline in what is now Spain and in France behind a string of sandbars and salt marshes known as the Landes. Traders were perhaps reluctant to put in along that littoral and perhaps they did sail diagonally across Biscay on the open sea, searching for the light burning at the top of the Tower of Hercules.

Moffat, Alistair; Wilson, James (2011-05-01). The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Kindle Locations 1552-1558). Birlinn. Kindle Edition.

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Closely related geographically to Asturias was another group of people never conquered by the Moors, the Basques. A pre-Celtic people, the Basques are possibly the most ancient in Europe. In the eighth century they lived on the Bay Biscay where the coast turns westward, with their territory stretching eastward toward the mid-Pyrenees and south to the upper reaches of the Ebro River. Basque settlement also traversed the Pyrenees into Gascony, a word derived from Vasconia, the original Roman name for the Basque lands. Some Basque territory was absorbed by the kingdom of Asturias, but the Basques remained fiercely independent, as a number of intruders such as Charlemagne would find out at great cost.

Charles Martel and his son Pippin III “the Short” followed up the victory at Poitiers by driving the Moors out of most of southern France. When in 778 Charlemagne was invited into Spain by the dissident Moorish wali (governor) of Barcelona, the emperor-to-be was ensnared in a strategic quagmire, with infighting among his Muslim allies. His troubles increased when the Saxon revolt under Widukind forced him to retreat prematurely. He withdrew back across the Pyrenees, using the mountain pass at Roncevaux. Here the Frankish rear guard was trapped in mid-August 778 by anti-Frankish Basques.

The Basques staged an ambush. Hidden in forests above the 3,470-foot (1,050-meter) pass, they waited until nightfall , then attacked the baggage train and rear guard at the top of the pass. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard reports that they drove the Franks “down into the valley beneath,” where they had no room to maneuver. “The Basques joined battle with them and killed them to the last man,” with the Basques escaping in the darkness. 4 Among those killed was the Paladin (knight) Roland. By the twelfth century the story of Roland’s last stand had taken on epic proportions and this relatively insignificant incident became the subject of the first great poem in Old French, The Song of Roland. A product of the crusading era, it blames the Moors for the slaughter rather than the Basques.

But Charlemagne didn’t give up on Spain. To protect his southern flank, he reestablished the Kingdom of Aquitaine, including Gascony, in 781 and appointed his son Louis the Pious as king there. This opened the way for an exodus of Christian refugees from Spain, including Agobard, later bishop of Lyons. It also gave the Franks a base from which they could reoccupy the region south of the Pyrenees to the east of Asturias and north of the Ebro River, the frontier province that became the Spanish March. But it proved difficult to maintain as a unified whole, and from it the independent kingdom of Pamplona emerged in the mid-ninth century. The majority of the Basque population lived in Pamplona, which also embraced the small county of Aragon.

Collins, Paul (2013-02-12). The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century (Kindle Locations 3401-3422). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

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The contractualist doctrines built in to Spanish theories of the state allowed for different levels of resistance. The first and most fundamental of these, which was to have a long and important life in the Indies, was articulated in the formula originally deriving from the Basques and subsequently embedded in later medieval Castilian law, of obeying but not complying. An official or an individual receiving a royal order which he considered inappropriate or unjust would symbolically place it on his head while pronouncing the ritual words that he would obey but not comply: se acata (or se obedece) Pero no se cumple. This simultaneously demonstrated respect for the royal authority while asserting the inapplicability of royal orders in this particular instance. Appearances were thus preserved, and time was given to all parties for reflection. This formula, which was to be incorporated into the laws of the Indies in 1528, provided an ideal mechanism for containing dissent, and preventing disputes from turning into open confrontation.54 Hernan Cortes took obedience without compliance one stage further when, on arriving on the coast of Mexico, he ignored the governor of Cuba’s orders that he was to conduct an expedition of reconnaissance rather than conquest. Instead, he denounced him as a `tyrant’, and appealed over his head directly to the monarch.55 The right of appeal was fundamental in this society, as was the right of the vassal to be heard by his prince, and between them they provided an essential device for conflict resolution.

Prof. John H. Elliott FBA. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Kindle Locations 2376-2384). Kindle Edition.

A steady stream of Spaniards, however, continued to migrate, although apparently it flowed less strongly than in earlier times.27 As with British emigration in the eighteenth century, new tributaries were joining this stream. Just as, as in the eighteenth century, the British periphery was producing a growing share of the total number of white immigrants, so too the Spanish periphery was playing a larger part than before. During the seventeenth century increasing numbers of Basques, in particular, had joined the Castilians, Andalusians and Extremadurans who had preponderated in the first century of colonization. Eighteenth-century emigration saw the increased representation of immigrants from the northern regions of the peninsula – not only Basques but also Galicians, Asturians and Castilians from the mountain region of Cantabria – together with Catalans and Valencians, from the east coast of Spain.21

Prof. John H. Elliott FBA. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Kindle Locations 4571-4575). Kindle Edition.

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Led by Colonel von Richthofen of the Condor Legion, the German Luftwaffe dropped thermite incendiary bombs on the Basque village of Guernica on 26 April 1937. The attack occurred on market day. Animals and people were slaughtered. It was an urban firestorm, an inferno, anticipating the bombing of Dresden, London, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

The first vice president of the United States, an improbable observer, helps us to understand the significance of the destruction. As a student of republics, John Adams traveled to the Basque country and was astonished. The Basque have “never known a landless class, either slave or villein.” Well before the regicides of modern European revolutions, “one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king,” Adams wrote.” The seamless woolen beret became the symbol of Basque social equality. As a political style, the beret made its way through the Basque refugees to France, from France to the Resistance, from the Resistance to beatniks in the metropolis, to Che Guevara, and to the Black Panthers.

The liberties of the Basques were traditionally renewed at an oak standing on ground in Guernica. The liberties derive from thefueros or charters of the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. They are similar to the Magna Carta-providing jurisdiction, defining customs, delineating tenures, documenting pasturage rights. The Castilian king swore at Guernica that he and his successors would maintain the “fueros, customs, franchises, and liberties” of the land.” The charters began as an orally transmitted code of uses and customs. The details of commoning varied from valley to valley, village to village, but clearly indicated a precommodity regime.19

An episode of covering up Picasso’s Guernica at the United Nations building in New York just prior to the U.S. bombing campaign and invasion of Iraq was emblematic of the state’s anxiety about symbolic production 20 The American secretary of state was not the first to try to cover up the Guernica story. Colonel Richthofen himself tried to hide it. Conservatives of England, Spain, and Germany hoped to hide the story, but the intrepid journalist George Steer revealed the truth, showing that the town was a center of Basque liberties and the location of the oak where local assemblies had met for centuries.21 Picasso began Guernica on May Day 1937 and exhibited it a month later at the Paris World’s Fair.

To cover up his mural, therefore, was more than a deliberate attempt to destroy the memory of civilian bombing; it struck at a location that presented the most durable, actual alternative to monarchy and capitalism found in Europe and, as such, a place of constitutional interest to John Adams as well. Behind Guernica was the commons.

Peter Linebaugh. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Kindle Locations 1960-1975). Kindle Edition.

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2 thoughts on “Who are the Basque?

  1. Re the race: I agree, no American would do such a thing. Ours is too individualistic, too self-centered a culture.

    • That was definitely my thought. At least, I’ve never heard a story like this involving an American.

      It is partly the type of person who gets into sports in the first place. To get very far in competitions, an individual has to be extremely competitive. And a country like the U.S. promotes competition above almost all else.

      It isn’t just individualism. You find the same thing in team sports. It’s an us vs them mentality. Differences in social identities (nationalites, ethnicities, races, etc) tend to bring out the us vs them mentality.

      The incident stood out because it didn’t follow the expected pattern. It involved two people that, without knowing any further info, one would suspect of more likely having tribalistic tendencies.

      As I’m familiar with the Basque, I know that they have been a historically isolated people who live in a geographically isolated region. This has led them to being one of the most genetically isolated populations in Europe with an ancestry different from other Europeans. All of this typically increases tribalism.

      It makes one wonder about this particular Basque runner. What is his history? What made him unique?

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