The origin of the Basques and the Basque language is a controversial topic that has given rise to numerous hypotheses. It is notable that the ancient language of the Basque people, the Basque language, which developed from the Proto-Basque language, is the only Pre-Indo-European language that is still extant in contemporary Europe. The Basques have therefore long been supposed to be a remnant of a pre-Indo-European population of Europe.

The main hypotheses about the origin of the Basques are:

  • Native origin, according to which the Basque language would have developed over the millennia entirely between the north of the Iberian Peninsula and the current south of France, without the possibility of finding any kind of relationship between the Basque language and other modern languages in other regions.
  • Basque-Iberism, now obsolete, which theorizes the existence of a demonstrable close kinship between the Basque and the Iberian language, and therefore between their speakers.
  • Caucasian origin, now obsolete, based on linguistic evidence similar to that of the Basque-Iberism, as the Basque language and the Caucasian languages share some linguistic typologies absent in the Indo-European languages.
  • Afro-Asiatic origin, now obsolete, according to which the Basque languages share some remote kinship with the Berber languages or even the Phoenician language.

Theories of major acceptance[edit | edit source]

Native origin[edit | edit source]

Distribution of Paleolithic settlements in Europe.

According to Stephen Oppenheimer, from circa 16,000 BC, the warmer climate allowed the expansion of proto-Basque groups, or proto-Europeans, across north of Africa and the entire continent of Europe,[1] expanding the Magdalenian culture across Europe.

In 2008, the Finnish linguist Kalevi Wiik proposed that the current Basque language is the remainder of a group of "Basque languages" that were spoken in the Paleolithic throughout western Europe and that retreated with the progress of the Indo-European languages. Wiik states that his theory coincides with the homogeneous distribution of the Haplogroup R1b in Atlantic Europe.[2]

Ludomir R Lozny states that "Wiik’s controversial ideas are rejected by the majority of the scholarly community, but they have attracted the enormous interest of a wider audience."[3]

Paleogenetic investigations[edit | edit source]

The geneticist Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society, has pointed out that, genetically, the Basques are indistinguishable from the rest of Iberians,[4] a fact that has been later confirmed by a study led by Jaume Bentranpetit, at the Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona.[5]

Paleogenetic investigations by the Complutense University of Madrid[6] indicate that the Basque people have a genetic profile coincident with the rest of the European population and that goes back to Prehistoric times.[7] The haplotype of the mitochondrial DNA known as U5 entered in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic[8] and developed varieties as the U8a, native of the Basque Country, which is considered to be Prehistoric,[9] and as the J group, which is also frequent in the Basque population.[9]

The works of Alzualde A, Izagirre N, Alonso S, Alonso A, de la Rua C.[10] about mitochondrial DNA of the Human remains found in the Prehistoric graveyard of Alaieta, in Alava, note that there are no differences between these remains and others found across Atlantic Europe.

Studies based on the Y chromosome genetically relate the Basques with the Celtic Welsh and Irish;[11] Stephen Oppenheimer from the University of Oxford says that the current inhabitants of the British Isles have their origin in the Basque refuge during the last Ice age. Oppenheimer reached this conclusion through the study of correspondences in the frequencies of genetic markers between various European regions.[12][13][14][15]

The haplogroup R1b, which originated during the last ice age at least 18,500 years ago,[16] when Human groups settled in the south of Europe and that is currently common in the European population, can be found most frequently in the Basque Country (91%), Wales (89%) and Ireland (81%). The current population of the R1b from western Europe would probably come from a climatic refuge in the Iberian Peninsula, where the haplogroup R1b1c (R1b1b2 or R1b3) originated. During the Allerød oscillation, circa 12,000 years ago, descendants of this population would have repopulated Western Europe.[12] The rare variety R1b1c4 (R1b1b2a2c) has almost always been found among the Basque people, both in the Northern and Southern Basque Country. The variety R1b1c6 (R1b1b2a2d) registers a high incidence in the Basque population, 19%.[17]

Linguistics[edit | edit source]

In the linguistics area, there are two lines of investigation, both based on etymology; one on toponyms, not only in the Basque Country but also in the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, and the other on the proper etymology of the Basque words.

The aizkora controversy[edit | edit source]

On the surface, Basque appears to have several terms for tools based on a root that resembles the word haitz "stone":

  • (h)aizkora "axe"
  • (h)aitzur "hoe"
  • (h)aitzur "shears"
  • (h)aiztur "tongs"
  • aizto "knife"

Theories regarding the possibility of such a shared root were put forward by Louis Lucien Bonaparte, Unamuno, Baroja and others, suggesting a terminological continuity since the stone age.[18] Today, these theories are viewed with suspicion as aizkora has been identified as a loan from the Latin asciola and the fact that historically the root of the remaining terms was ainz- (based on the Roncalese dialect of Basque, which is known for its preservation of historical nasals and has the documented forms antzur, ainzter, aintzur and ainzto) and thus a reconstructed root *ani(t)z or *ane(t)z, whereas there are no traces of such a nasal in the word haitz "rock" (cf Roncalese aitz).[18]

Theories of minor acceptance[edit | edit source]

Basque-Iberism[edit | edit source]

Sides of an Iberian coin with the inscription Baskunes.

The theory of the Basque-Iberism affirms that, somehow, there is a direct relation between the Basque language and the Iberian language, in a way that Basque would be the result of an evolution of the Iberian language, or that Basque belonged to the same language family. The first one to point out this theory was Strabo in the 1st century BC (that means, when the Iberian language was still spoken); he asserted that the Iberians and the Aquitanians were similar physically and that they spoke similar languages.

The German Wilhelm von Humboldt exposed, in the early 19th Century, a thesis in which he stated that the Basque people were Iberians, following some studies that he had conducted.

Caucasian origin[edit | edit source]

Some researchers have propounded the similarities between the Basque language and the Caucasian languages, especially the Georgian language.

The comparison between the matrilineal and patrilineal DNA of the native peoples from the Basque Country and Georgia has allowed the discovery of significant differences. The hypothesis that related both populations is only based on the typological similarities, which is never a good marker of linguistic kinship. These superficial similarities in the linguistic typologies do not seem to accompany a genetic relation at a population level.[19] However, the possible relation between Basque and the languages of the Caucasus is denied by authors such as Larry Trask, who stated that the comparisons were wrongly made, given the fact that the Basque language was compared with several Caucasian languages at the same time.

Paradoxically, despite not having found a linguistic relationship, the genetic haplogroup R1b3 has been found between the Bashkirs of Volga.[20]

Old European[edit | edit source]

These theories are based on the Old European hydronymy, assuming that the first inhabitants of Europe spoke a common tongue[21] or languages of the same language family. This theory is not accepted by most linguists, who believe that, in a territory as large as Europe, more than one language had to be spoken.[21]

In January 2003, the Spanish edition of the scientific magazine Scientific American published a study conducted by Theo Vennemann,[22] professor of theoretical linguistics of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he concluded:

Much of the names of settlements, rivers, mountains, valleys and landscapes in Europe would have their origin in Pre-Indo-European languages, specifically the Basque language.


We do not fall in exaggeration if we say that all the Europeans are Basques.

According to Vennemann, the Proto-Basque language (or a language family from which the Basque language originated) was the linguistic stratum in which the Indo-European languages later settled. He found, among other examples, the Basque words "ibai" (river) and "ibar" (bottom) to repeat continuously in European rivers, or the word "haran" (valley) in toponyms such as Val d'Aran, Arendal, Arundel, Arnach, Arnsberg, Aresburg, Ahrensburg, Aranbach or Arnstein.

The Vennemann theory has been criticized by Basque scholars and it is not accepted by most linguists.[23]

Specifically, Trask, after many pointed critiques of the methods employed, affirmed that Vennemann had found an agglutinative language, but with no relation to the Basque language, and that probably it is simply the Indo-European language, as many other linguistic scholars agree.[24]

Joseba Andoni Lakarra, a researcher of the Proto-Basque language, criticizes the thesis of Vennemann, saying, as Trask, that he identifies modern Basque roots that are not related to the archaic Basque. In the same way, Lakarra says that, despite Basque now being an agglutinative language, there are reasons to believe that previously it was not so.[24]

Roman records[edit | edit source]

Basque and other pre-Indo-European tribes (in red) at the time of Roman arrival

The early story of the Basque people was recorded by Roman classical writers, historians and geographers, such as Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Pomponius Mela. The present-day Basque Country was, by the time of the Roman arrival in the Iberian Peninsula, inhabited by Aquitanian and Celtic tribes. The Aquitanians are also known as the "Proto-Basque people", and included several tribes, such as the Vascones, who were located at both sides of the western Pyrenees. In present-day Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Álava were located the Caristii, Varduli, and Autrigones, whose origin is still not clear.[25] It is not known if these tribes were of Aquitanian origin, related to the Vascones, or if they were of Celtic origin. The latter seems more likely, based on the use of Celtic and Proto-Celtic toponyms by these tribes. These tribes would have then gone through a Basquisation, caused by progress of the Aquitanian tribes on their territory.

Strabo in the 1st century AD reported that the Ouaskonous (Vascones) inhabited the area around the town of Pompelo, and the coastal town of Oiasona in Hispania. He also mentioned other tribes between them and the Cantabrians: the Varduli, Caristii, and Autrigones.[26] About a century later, Ptolemy also listed the coastal Oeasso beside the Pyrénées to the Vascones, together with 15 inland towns, including Pompelon.[27] Pompelo/Pompelon is easily identified as modern-day Pamplona, Navarre. The border port of Irún, where a Roman harbour and other remains have been uncovered, is the accepted identification of the coastal town mentioned by Strabo and Ptolemy.[28] Three inscriptions in an early form of Basque found in eastern Navarre can be associated with the Vascones.[29]

However, the Vascones appear to have been just one tribe within a wider language community. Across the border in what is now France, the Aquitani tribes of Gascony spoke a language different from the Celts and were more like the Iberi.[30] Although no complete inscription in their language survives, a number of personal names were recorded in Latin inscriptions, which attest to Aquitanian being the precursor of modern Basque[31] (This extinct Aquitanian language should not be confused with Occitan, a Romance language spoken in Aquitaine since the beginning of the Middle Ages).

Historiography[edit | edit source]

Tubalism[edit | edit source]

Between the 14th and 15th Century, a series of historical legends were created with the objective of defending the singularity of the Basque people and their Fuero system, which regulated the relations between the Basque territories and the Crown. Among these legends are the Basque-Iberism, the Basque-Cantabrism, and The Battle of Arrigorriaga. These legends were used in a context of political vindication. In the 19th Century, the Basque nationalism would use these legends as the base for their vindications.[32]

Tubalism and Basque-Iberism[edit | edit source]

Developed by Esteban de Garibay and Andrés Poza, this legend states that the Basque people are direct descendants of Tubal, grandson of Noah, fifth son of Japheth. According to it, Japheth and his tribe, the Iberians, departed to the Iberian Peninsula, settling between the Pyrenees and the river Ebro, right after the confusion of languages in the Tower of Babel.

Then, the Basque language would be one of the 72 languages that were created as a punishment of God after the Tower of Babel.[32]

Basque-Cantabrism[edit | edit source]

It is based on a historical and geographical distortion of the Cantabrian Wars, based on a manuscript gloss that Cristóbal de Mieres, secretary of Lope García de Salazar (1399-1476) introduced on a 1491 copy of Las bienandanzas e fortunas. This legend makes the Vascones the protagonists of these wars.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. ^ The origins of the British; author Stephen Oppenheimer; Editor: Constable and Robinson (11 Sep 2006), ISBN 1-84529-158-1
  2. ^ Kalevi Wiik Were did european men come from (2008)
    The most plausible candidates for the ancient languages of the Iberian refuge are the Basque languages still spoken by about half a million people in the Basque area of Spain and France. Earlier, there were several languages belonging to this language group, but mainly because of the intensive spread of IE languages in Western Europe, the area of the Basque languages has shrunk ever since. It is probable that the entire Atlantic Coast was linguistically Basque during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and the millennia after it. The area was homogeneous also in respect to subsistence system and genetics: the men were reindeer hunters and their main Y-chromosome haplogroup was R1b.
  3. ^ Lozny, Ludomir R (2011). Comparative Archaeologies: A Sociological View of the Science of the Past. Springer. p. 156. ISBN 78-1441982247. 
  4. ^ Navarro, Núria (10 July 2007). "Los vascos son como todos los españoles" (in Spanish). El Periódico. Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  5. ^ Domínguez, Nuño (19 February 2010). "Los genes de los vascos no son diferentes" (in español). El Público. Retrieved 21 February 2010. 
  6. ^ Eva Fernández et al.: "Hacia el Origen de los vascos: Secuencias de DNA mitocontrial antiguo del País Vasco"
  7. ^ Dupandunlop, Isabelle et al. (2004) "Estimating the impact of prehistoric admixture in the genome of Europeans"; Molecular Biology and Evolution 21 (7): 1361-1372.
  8. ^ Maca-Meyer, N., González, A.M., Larruga, J.M., Flores, C. y Cabrera, V.M. (2001) "Linajes mayores del genoma mitocondrial trazan antiguas expansiones humanas"; BMC Genetics, 2: 13.
  9. ^ a b Alfonso-Sánchez, M.A.; S. Cardoso; C. Martínez-Bouzas; J. A. Peña; R. J. Herrera; A. Castro; I. Fernández-Fernández; M. y M. De Pancorbo (2008) "Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup diversity in Basques: A reassessment based on HVI and HVII polymorphisms"; American Journal of Human Biology 20 (2): 154 - 164.
  10. ^ Temporal mitochondrial DNA variation in the Basque Country: influence of post-neolithic events. Alzualde y otros [1]
  11. ^ BBC Genes link Celts to Basques
  12. ^ a b The origins of the British; author Stephen Oppenheimer; Editor: Constable and Robinson (11 Sep 2006), ISBN 1-84529-158-1 and from the same author Myths of British ancestry
  13. ^ Los británicos descienden de los vascos de la Edad de Hielo.
  14. ^ Británicos de origen vasco
  15. ^ Genes link Celts to Basques "On the Y-chromosome, the Celtic populations turn out to be statistically indistinguishable from the Basques," Professor Goldstein said.
  16. ^ Karaet, Tatiana et al. (2008) "New binary polymorphisms reshape and increase the resolution of the human Y chromosomal haplogroup tree"; Genome Research 18: 830-838.
  17. ^ Rosser, Zoë H. et al. (2000) "Y-Chromosomal Diversity in Europe Is Clinal and Influenced Primarily by Geography, Rather than by Language"; The American Journal of Human Genetics 67(6): 1526–1543.
  18. ^ a b Trask, L. The History of Basque Routledge: 1997 ISBN 0-415-13116-2
  19. ^ Martinez Bouzas, Cristina (2003) "Relaciones Filogenéticas entre las Poblaciones Autóctona Vasca, Georgiana (Cáucaso) y Bereber (Mauritania) desde la Perspectiva de la Región Hipervariable del ADN Mitocondrial y Polimorfismos del Cromosoma Y". UPV / EHU
  20. ^ Lobov A.. et al. (2005) "Y chromosome analysis in subpopulations of Bashkirs from Russia"
  21. ^ a b El Euskera arcaico Luis Núñez Astrain page 183
  22. ^ Vennemann's website
  23. ^ Au sujet de l’histoire de la langue basque et de ses apparentements
  24. ^ a b El Euskera arcaico Luis Núñez Astrain pege 185
  25. ^ Ethnic maps of Iberia
  26. ^ Strabo, Geography, III, 4.10.
  27. ^ Ptolemy, Geography, II, 5: Tarraconensis Hispania.
  28. ^ R.J.A. Talbert, Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000); J. Santos Yanguas, Identificación de las ciudades antiguas de Álava, Guipúzcoa y Vizcaya: Estado de la cuestión, Studia Historica: Historia Antigua, vol. 6 (1988), pp. 121-130; J.L. Ramirez Sádaba, Las ciudades Vasconas segun las fuentes literarias y su evolucion en la tardoantigüedad, Antigüedad y Cristianismo (Murcia), vol. 23 (2006), pp. 185-199.
  29. ^ R. L. Trask, The History of Basque (1997), chapter 6.
  30. ^ Strabo, Geography, book 4, chapter 2.
  31. ^ R. L. Trask, The History of Basque (1997), chapter 6.
  32. ^ a b Bazán y Otros, Iñaki (2006). CIUDAD:Madrid EDITORIAL: La esfera de los libros. ed. De Túbal a Aitor. Historia de Vasconia. ISBN 94-9734-570-3. 

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