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GENETICS

The Basques: not quite as ancient as was once believed

Study of remains from Atapuerca site shows they are closer to 5,000 than 10,000 years old

Recreación de la vida neolítica en Atapuerca Ampliar foto
A recreation of Neolithic life at Atapuerca, distributed by Uppsala University.

Former Basque premier Juan José Ibarretxe, who led the northern Spanish region between 1999 and 2009, was fond of saying that the Basque people were “7,000 years old.”

Ibarretxe, of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), used this claim to defend the creation of an independent state whose origins allegedly went all the way back “to the Mesolithic.”

But this is not the case, an international team of scientists has confirmed.

Researchers looked at the genes of eight early farmers who lived in Atapuerca (Burgos) between 3,500 and 5,500 years ago. Their analysis shows that “these individuals showed the greatest genetic affinity to modern-day Basques,” meaning that the latter are around 5,000 years old.

We inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula share a pretty common, relatively recent origin”

José María Bermúdez de Castro, Atapuerca sites co-director

“Basques are descended from the early farmers that we studied in Atapuerca and from other regions, as demonstrated by a near-simultaneous study based on an individual from Catalonia,” says the biologist Cristina Valdiosera, of the UCM-ISCIII Center for Human Evolution and Behavior.

Valdiosera is the co-author of the study, which was published in the US scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“I don’t know whether [the Basques] were already living in what we call Euskadi these days, but we can say that they have been in Atapuerca for at least 5,000 years,” says Valdiosera. “We can also say that Basques have no genetic link to the hunter-gatherer populations of the Mesolithic, and thus that their origin is not as old as once believed.”

The ancient origins of the Basque nation were first posited nearly a century ago, and have been a cornerstone of nationalists’ claims for an independent state.

In his 1923 book El problema etnológico vasco y la arqueología (or, The Basque ethnological problem and archaeology), the prehistorian Pedro Bosch wrote that “we can confidently formulate the hypothesis that the Basque people are in fact descended from the ancient peoples of the Pyrenean culture, whose own origins go back to the indigenous people of northern Spain during the Upper Paleolithic.”

The 4,900-year-old remains of a child found at Atapuerca, Burgos.
The 4,900-year-old remains of a child found at Atapuerca, Burgos. Madrid Scientific Films

Bosch, a native of Barcelona, thus went even further than Ibarretxe, placing Basque roots in the early Stone Age, over 10,000 years ago.

“The Paleolithic origin of the Basques is an urban legend that makes no sense these days and was forgotten long ago,” says José María Bermúdez de Castro, co-director of the archeological sites at Atapuerca.

Instead, the new studies paint a picture that may be less desirable from the nationalist viewpoint, but not entirely devoid of an epic dimension, either.

Farming and husbandry began around 11,000 years ago with the Neolithic revolution in the Fertile Crescent, a region covering modern-day Israel, Syria and Iraq, among other countries. Those early farmers migrated across Europe, mixing with the local populations of hunter-gatherers. In modern-day Spain, this genetic mixture increased over the next 2,000 years, according to the new study.

“We inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula share a pretty common, relatively recent origin,” says Bermúdez de Castro. “What is true is that Basques, in their mountainous areas, did not receive as much [outside] genetic influence during historic times, as was the case in Andalusia with the Muslims or along the Mediterranean with the Romans. In that sense, the Basques preserved their Neolithic purity to a greater degree.”

“The resemblances between modern Basques and these early farmers tell us that Basques remained in relative isolation for the last 5,000 years, but not much more,” says Torsten Günther, a researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, who also co-authored the PNAS study.

“It is likely that the Basque language, euskera, is a descendant of the language used by those early farmers, or perhaps one of the languages that the latter used,” says Valdiosera. “But the origin of the language is an unconcluded affair.”

English version by Susana Urra.