Origin of the Basques

The Basque people (Basque: Euskaldunak) are an indigenous people inhabiting adjacent areas of Spain and France.Their history is therefore interconnected with Spanish and French history and also with the history of many other past and present countries, particularly in Europe and the Americas.


Location of the ancient tribes ·Red: Basque and other pre-Indoeuropean tribes·Blue:Celtic tribes

In the 1st century AD, Strabo wrote that the northern parts of what are now Navarre (Nafarroa in Basque) and Aragon were inhabited by the Vascones. Despite the evident etymological connection between Vascones and the modern denomination Basque, there is no proof that the Vascones were the modern Basques’ ancestors or spoke the language that has evolved into modern Basque, although this is strongly suggested both by the historically consistent toponymy of the area and by a few personal names on tombstones dating from the Roman period.
Three different peoples inhabited the territory of the present Basque Autonomous Community: the Varduli, Caristii and Autrigones. Historical sources do not state whether these tribes were related to the Vascones and/or the Aquitani.
Recent archaeological finds at Iruña-Veleia (Araba) have brought to light some early Basque texts [1], [2]. Otherwise, the area where a Basque-related language is best attested from an early period is Gascony, to the north of the present-day Basque Country, the ancient inhabitants of which, the Aquitani, may have spoken a language related to Basque. (The extinct Aquitanian language should not be confused with Gascon, the Romance language that has been spoken in Aquitaine since the Middle Ages.)
During the Middle Ages the name Vascones and its derivates (including Basque) were extended to cover the entire Basque-speaking population of the present-day Basque Country.

Prehistory: the mainstream view

Although little is known about the prehistory of the Basques before the period of Roman occupation owing to the difficulty in identifying evidence for specific cultural traits, the mainstream view today is that the Basque area shows signs of archaeological continuity since the Aurignacian period.
Many Basque archaeological sites, including cave dwellings such as Santimamiñe, provide evidence for continuity from Aurignacian times down to the Iron Age, shortly before Roman occupation. The possibility therefore cannot be ruled out of at least some of the same people having continued to inhabit the area for thirty millennia.
A high concentration of Rh- (a typical European trait) among Basques, who have the highest level worldwide, had already been taken as suggestive of the antiquity and lack of admixture of the Basque genetic stock before the advent of modern genetics, which has confirmed this view. In the 1990s Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza published his findings according to which one of the main European autosomal components, PC 5, was shown to be a typically Basque trait believed to have receded owing to the migration of Eastern peoples during the Neolithic and Metal Ages.[1][2]

Further genetic studies on Y chromosome DNA haplogroups[3] and X chromosome microsatellites[4] also seem to point to Basques being the most direct descendants from prehistoric Western Europeans.Having the highest percent of “Western European genes” but found also at high levels among neighbor populations,as they are also direct descendants of the same People. However, Mitochondrial DNA have cast some doubt over this theory[5][6]
Some scholars have interpreted the etymologies of Basque words for knife and axe, which contain a root meaning ‘stone’, as evidence that the Basque language dates back to the stone age.[7]
Alternative theories

The following alternative theories about the prehistoric origins of the Basques have all had adherents at some time but are rejected by many scholars and do not represent the consensus view:
Basques as Neolithic settlers: According to this theory, a precursor of the Basque language might have arrived about 6,000 years ago with the advance of agriculture. The only archaeological evidence that could partly support this hypothesis would be that for the Ebro valley area. Genetics also lends little support.
Basques arrived together with the Indo-Europeans: Linked to an unproven linguistic hypothesis that includes Basque and some Caucasian languages in a single super-family.

Even if such a Basque-Caucasian connection did exist, it would have to be at too great a time depth to be relevant to Indo-European migrations. Apart from a Celtic presence in the Ebro valley during the Urnfield culture, archaeology offers little support for this hypothesis. The Basque language shows few certain Celtic or other Indo-European loans, other than those transmitted via Latin or Romance in historic times.

Basques as an Iberian subgroup: Based on occasional use by early Basques of the Iberian alphabet and Julius Caesar’s description of the Aquitanians as Iberians.

Apparent similarities between the undeciphered Iberian language and Basque have also been cited, but this fails to account for the fact that attempts so far to decipher Iberian using Basque as a reference have failed.

The Basque Country in prehistorical times



About 35,000 years ago, the lands that are now the Basque Country, together with neighboring areas such as Aquitaine and the Pyrenees) which may have been culturally Basque in the past, were settled by Homo sapiens, who gradually displaced the region’s earlier Neanderthal population. Arriving from Central Europe, the settlers brought the Aurignacian culture with them.
At this stage the Basque Country formed part of the archaeological Franco-Cantabrian province which extended all the way from Asturias to Provence. Throughout this region, which underwent similar cultural developments with some local variation, Aurignacian culture was successively replaced by Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures. Except for the Aurignacian, these all seem to have originated in the Franco-Cantabrian region, which suggests no further waves of immigration into the area during the Paleolithic period.
Within the present-day Basque Country settlement was limited almost exclusively to the Atlantic area, probably for climatic reasons. Important Basque sites include the following:

  • Santimamiñe (Bizkaia): Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian remains, mural art

  • Bolinkoba (Bizkaia): Gravettian and Solutrean

  • Ermitia (Gipuzkoa): Solutrean and Magdalenian

  • Amalda (Gipuzkoa): Gravettian and Solutrean

  • Koskobilo (Gipuzkoa): Aurignacian and Solutrean

  • Aitzbitarte (Gipuzkoa): Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian

  • Isturitz (Low Navarre): Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian, mural art

  • Gatzarria (Zuberoa): Aurignacian and Gravettian

Epipaleolithic and Neolithic

At the end of the Ice Age, Magdalenian culture gave way to Azilian culture. Hunters turned from large animals to smaller prey, and fishing and seafood gathering became important economic activities. The southern part of the Basque Country was first settled in this period.
Gradually, Neolithic technology started to filter through from the Mediterranean coasts, first in the form of isolated pottery items (Zatoia, Marizulo) and later with the introduction of sheepherding. As in most of Atlantic Europe, this transition progressed slowly.
In the Ebro valley, more fully Neolithic sites are found. Anthropometric classification of the remains suggests the possibility of some Mediterranean colonisation here. A comparable situation is found in Aquitaine, where settlers may have arrived via the Garonne.
In the second half of the 4th millennium BC, Megalithic culture appeared throughout the area. Burials become collective (possibly implying families or clans) and the dolmen predominates, while caves are also employed in some places.

Unlike the dolmens of the Mediterranean basin which show a preference for corridors, in the Atlantic area they are invariably simple chambers.

Copper and Bronze Ages


Use of copper and gold, and then other metals, did not begin in the Basque Country until c. 2500. With the arrival of metal working, the first urban settlements made their appearance. One of the most notable towns on account of its size and continuity was La Hoya in southern Araba, which may have served as a link, and possibly a trading centre, between Portugal (Vila Nova de São Pedro culture) and Languedoc (Treilles group). Concurrently, caves and natural shelters remained in use, particularly in the Atlantic region.
Undecorated pottery continued from the Neolithic period up until the arrival of the Bell Beaker culture with its characteristic pottery style, which is mainly found around the Ebro Valley. Building of megalithic structures continued until the Late Bronze Age.
In Aquitaine there was a notable presence of the Artenacian culture, a culture of bowmen that spread rapidly through Western France and Belgium from its homeland near the Garonne c. 2400.
In the Late Bronze Age, parts of the southern Basque Country came under the influence of the pastoralist Cogotas I culture of the Iberian plateau.

Iron Age

In the Iron Age an Indo-European people, probably Celtic, settled on territories adjacent to the Basque region and began to exert influence. Bearers of the late Urnfield culture followed the Ebro upstream as far as the southern fringes of the Basque Country, leading to the incorporation of the Hallstatt culture.
In the Basque Country, settlements now appear mainly at points of difficult access, probably for defensive reasons, and had elaborate defence systems. During this phase agriculture seemingly became more important than animal husbandry.
It may be during this period that new megalithic structures, the (stone circle) or cromlech and the megalith or menhir, made their appearance.




About sooteris kyritsis

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