Basque identity less old than thought

by Lorraine Williamson
The Basque Country

It is well known that the Basque people distinguish themselves with a unique background. However, the history on which this is based does not go back as far as folktales would have you believe. Furthermore, it is established that the DNA differs from that of the other Spaniards. 

This appears from the largest scientific research to date on the origin of the Basque people. Research has been carried out from both the current DNA of 2000 Basques and historical DNA. As such, it has been deduced this is not only different from that of Spaniards, but is unique within Europe. 

Background less mysterious than thought 

According to research leader and biologist David Comas, the distinctive genetic material cannot be attributed to an extraordinary origin. However, the cause is less mysterious than previously thought. And has its origins in a greater degree of isolation from the Basque people since the Iron Age 2,500 years ago. 

Since the 19th century, the Basque background has occupied science. In 1862, the French anthropologist Paul Borca stole bone remains from a cemetery in the Basque town of Zarautz. He wanted to investigate the peculiarities of what was then called a primitive people. Since the beginning of his presidency in 2009, Basque President Juan José Ibarretxe has proclaimed that the Basque Country has a history of 7,000 years, in defense of its separatist policy. The Basque Nationalist Party PNV also claims that the Basques are the oldest inhabitants of Europe, with origins in prehistoric times. 

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7000 ago there was no difference 

7000 years ago farmers and pastoralists from Anatolia moved to the Iberian Peninsula. They mingled with the local population of hunters and gatherers. This gave rise to a people that had 80% DNA from those who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula in the Neolithic.  And 20% of the hunters and gatherers from the Mesolithic. 4500 years ago, nomads from the Russian Jamna culture also moved to the Iberian peninsula. The resulting people had 40% “foreign” and 60% “own” DNA. That is the basis of the genetic material of all Spaniards, including that of the Basques. 

The recent research, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, suggests that the Basque language has been a cultural barrier since the Iron Age. Thus isolating the Basque people during Roman times and the Moorish occupation. Because Basque had different dialects, there were even isolated groups within the Basque Country. Current Basque was not recognised as the official language of the region until 1968. 

In 2015, the biologist Cristina Valdiosera from the University of Burgos already showed that Basque history does not go back as far as is supposed. Her research, based on bone remains from the Northern Spanish Atapuerca Mountains, goes back 5,000 years. Then, in 2019, geneticist Íñigo Olalde of the American Harvard University brought this date back to 2,000 or 2,500 years ago. This dating has now been confirmed with the recent research by David Comas. The DNA of the Basques is therefore different due to centuries of isolation, but the historical genetic basis is the same for all Spaniards. 


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