The Basque in Northern Spain and Southern France have puzzled researchers for decades now. They do not speak Spanish nor French but have their own language and culture. One theory proposed is that these people were an unmixed isolated pocket of indigenous hunter-gatherers but that theory has been an ongoing debate.
Recently, research has revealed that suggests that the Basque came from early farmers who interbred with local hunters in the Pyrenees before becoming isolated. One of the mysteries surrounding the Basque is their language which is known as “Euskera” and it is unrelated to any other language spoken in Europe or the entire world for that matter! Their customs are also unique. But there is also the mystery of their DNA. The DNA of the Basque people show distinct genetic patterns when compared to people in France or Spain!
Uppsala University researcher Mattias Jakobsson in Sweden analyzed genomes a couple of years ago and compared them to 8 Stone Age human skeletal remains from El Portalon in Atapuerca, Spain which is in the north. These 8 ancient humans lived about 3.5-5.5 kya which is after the transition to farming in SW Europe. His results showed that these ancient Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors of today’s Basque people!
In comparing other ancient European farmers we find that agriculture was brought to Iberia by the same migrant groups that brought it into central and northern Europe. It is believed these people who brought farming to Europe came from the Levant around 7 kya and with them came a new era known as the Neolithic which is the period we are in today also.
The newest theory is that these people who came from the Levant interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherer populations in Europe who were descendants of the people of the last Ice Age. In fact, it was found that the 8 skeletons from El Portalon had more hunter-gatherer ancestry than that of the farmers from Germany, Hungary, and Spain.
This newest theory contends that the interbreeding between the farmers and hunter-gatherers took place and in the Basque region the offspring became (or chose to be perhaps) isolated. If this isolation is so then it means the Basque lands may have been largely unaffected by subsequent migrations of ancient humans.
We do know that one migration by a shepherd people during the Bronze Age came westward and likely spread across Europe. Genomes from people in Spain and France show evidence of this but Basque genomes do not! We also know that in 711 A.D. a Muslim army crossed North Africa into Iberia. This was the beginning of the Muslim occupation of Iberia that was to last for 700 years! Today this can also be detected in the genomes of people from Spain and Portugal but it is largely not found in the Basque!
Something else we know is that the people of Sardinia (an Italian island) are most genetically similar to pioneer farmers in Central Europe. The Sardinians were also isolated after the transition to agriculture but we do not find the hunter-gatherer DNA in their ancestry as we do in the Basque.
Although the evidence seems to show in terms of DNA that the first farmers came into Europe from the Near East people living in Europe today don’t necessarily resemble those first farmers genetically. Why is this? Because genetic patterns in Turkey and the Mid East were also modified by migrations during the Early Neolithic. Further, the amount of hunter-gatherer DNA in Europeans varies. The most is found in Estonians and Lithuanians who have about 30% but no pure Europeans remain today!
I must also note that the newest research holds that farmers in the Baltic began farming on their own without the influence of migrating farmers out of the Near East (see story link below).
I’ll have more on the Basque in future posts as many of my ancestors came from that region in Spain so stay tuned 🙂