Are the Basques the Oldest Europeans?

Basque people | ©dantzan / Flickr
Basque people | ©dantzan / Flickr
Photo of Esme Fox
24 January 2018

The mystery of the origins of the Basque people of northern Spain and southwestern France have baffled anthropologists for years. They speak a language that is unrelated to any other in the world and have a unique genetic makeup. So are the Basques the oldest Europeans?

Who are the Basques?

The Basques are people from the Basque Country – a region in the north of Spain, bordering the Bay of Biscay to the north, the French Basque regions to the northeast, and surrounded by the regions of Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y León and Cantabria.

Basque dancers | ©Kezka Dantza Taldea Eibar / Flickr

How can they be older than the Spanish – aren’t they part of Spain?

Yes, they are now, but at one time, some in the Basque Country (as we know it today) were part of the independent nation known as the Kingdom of Navarra, which lasted from around the 9th to the 16th centuries.

A map of the Basque Country in the colours of the flag | ©Eddo / WikiCommons

So why are they so different to their Spanish and French neighbours?

Studies have shown that the genetic patterns and makeup of the Basques is different to that of their neighbours. For example, the Spanish have been shown to have North African DNA, stemming from the Moorish rule of the country for over 700 years, while the Basques do not.

Another example is their language – Euskera. Both French and Spanish (and virtually all other European languages for that matter) are Indo-European languages, which are descendants of a single prehistoric language, spoken sometime in the Neolithic era, sharing certain patterns, words and grammar; however, Basque is not. In fact, Euskera is one of the oldest known languages and is not related to any other language spoken in the world today.

Basque girls dancing | © / Wikimedia Commons

Why is this?

This is a question that anthropologists have been asking for years and people still do not fully understand, but it is widely believed that geography holds the answer. The Basque Country is surrounded by the sea and a wild, rocky coastline on one side, and high soaring mountains on the other. Because of this terrain, the Basque Country remained isolated for thousands of years, it was very difficult to conquer and was not affected by migration.

New research discovered in the last few years and reported in the PNAS journal suggests that the Basques descended from early hunter-gather farmers from the Near East who lived around 7,000 years ago and mixed with the local Basque population before becoming completely isolated.

Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park, Basque Country, Spain | © Iñaki LLM / Wikimedia Commons

So, what does this mean? Are they the oldest?

All this evidence, along with that of the mysteries surrounding their language, suggests that yes, the Basques are some of earliest human inhabitants of Europe. They arrived before the Celts and also before the spread of the Indo-European languages and the migration of the Iron Age. It is believed by some that they could actually be related to the Paleolithic Europeans, during the Old Stone Age.

Palaeolithic cave art | © Rameessos / Wikimedia Commons

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