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New Clues in the History of the Basque People

October 9, 2015
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One of the eight Stone Age skeletons analyzed at El Portalón Cave in Atapuerca, Spain. Photo by Eneko Iriarle

One of the eight Stone Age skeletons analyzed at El Portalón Cave in Atapuerca, Spain. Photo by Eneko Iriarle

As a community nestled in the mountains in north-central Spain and southwest France, the Basque people’s history has always been shrouded in mystery. This isolated group of people managed to do what many others did not: maintain a firm grasp on their culture, language, and way of life, throughout numerous campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Roman Empire, to the Arabic invasion in 711, through waves of strict culture-control even as recently as the rule of Francisco Franco.

Not only do Basque people appear set apart by their customs and language — Basque is a language isolate, not even an Indo-European language like its neighbors — but also by their genes. It has been posited and heavily supported within the anthropological community, that the Basque people descended from a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Iberian region who remained separated from the later wave of farming peoples, who had the largest genetic and linguistic influence on the European continent.

However, a recent paper published in PNAS has caused a considerable stir in the scientific and anthropological community. According to a group led by Mattias Jakobsson a geneticist, with the Uppsala Universitet, today’s Basques bear a close genetic relationship with a group of farmers from the Iberian region who lived 5,500-3,500 years ago. This contrasts with the idea that the Basque gene pool remained largely isolated from a time about 10,000 years ago.

The team collected genome-wide sequence data from eight human remains, between 5,500 and 3,500 years before present from the El Portalón cave, in the region of Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain (a region which also had a major discovery concerning the history of neanderthals). Unlike farmers in central  and northern Europe during the wave of migration, these farmers mixed with hunter-gatherers in the Iberian region, and the admixture of hunter-gatherers only increased over that time.

Fig. 1. Overview of samples. (A) Geographic locations of ancient individuals used in this study. The dataset includes individuals sequenced as part of this study (from El Portalón) as well as individuals from the literature (1, 2, 10, 12, 19). The map template is modified from www.primap.com. (B) Temporal and cultural context of the ancient individuals; individuals from a hunter–gatherer context are shown in italics. The symbols and colors denoting each individual are used consistently throughout this paper. (C) PCA of ancient individuals and modern-day individuals across Europe (1). Only those ancient samples with more than 20,000 transversion SNPs overlapping with the modern-day SNP data are plotted (see also SI Appendix, section S8 and Dataset S1). Colored areas show kernel densities of modern-day groups with more than eight individuals. (From

“Overview of samples. (A) Geographic locations of ancient individuals used in this study. The dataset includes individuals sequenced as part of this study (from El Portalón) as well as individuals from the literature (1, 2, 10, 12, 19). The map template is modified from http://www.primap.com. (B) Temporal and cultural context of the ancient individuals; individuals from a hunter–gatherer context are shown in italics. The symbols and colors denoting each individual are used consistently throughout this paper. (C) PCA” (Principal Component Analysis) “of ancient individuals and modern-day individuals across Europe (1). Only those ancient samples with more than 20,000 transversion SNPs” (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) “overlapping with the modern-day SNP data are plotted (see also SI Appendix, section S8 and Dataset S1). Colored areas show kernel densities of modern-day groups with more than eight individuals.” Torsten Günther, Cristina Valdiosera, Helena Malmström, Irene Ureña, Ricardo Rodriguez-Varela, Óddny Osk Sverrisdóttir, Evangelia A. Daskalaki, Pontus Skoglund, Thijessen Naidoo, Emma M. Svensson, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Eudald Carbonell, Michael Dunn, Jan Storå, Eneko Iriarte, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José-Miguel Carretero, Anders Götherström, and Mattias Jakobsson. “Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques”. Vol. 112 no. 38, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America http://www.pnas.org/content/112/38/11917.full?sid=27676f7c-d4d4-43a9-899e-3f65317fa12a

In summation, the study posits that the farmers (who possibly spoke a non–Indo-European language, which could be an ancestor of today’s Basque language) assimilated resident hunter–gatherers. Basques remained relatively isolated from this point on, as opposed to being isolated thousands of years before that point. Later migrations to the region, including but not limited to, the Roman Empire and the Moorish reign of the peninsula, led to additional admixture in the Iberian population, with the exception of the Basques.
What does this mean for language study and Basque culture? Linguists have long been intrigued by the history of the Basque language and have searched high and low for any possible related language. Perhaps this discovery will open some new lanes of investigation, or at least make them more probable. What does it mean for the Basque people to find out they’re more closely related to their neighbors than previously thought? Will these new findings contribute to ease tensions in the region? Only time will tell.

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