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The Basques: the missing cousins of the British and Irish?

Geneticist offers a controversial theory regarding the influence of the Basques

Could the Basques really be the ancestors of the British and Irish?
Could the Basques really be the ancestors of the British and Irish?

Plenty of theories, most of them controversial, have been formulated regarding the origins of the Basque people. But now, a new debate is arising over where they went.

A book by Stephen Oppenheimer, a medical geneticist at Oxford University, claims that the origins of the majority of British and Irish people lie in the Basques, who, he maintains, moved north from Spain thousands of years ago following the retreat of the glaciers that had been covering northern Europe.

Oppenheimer spent two years researching the genetic makeup of people in the British Isles by tracing individual male gene lines and analyzing their geographical distribution.

What’s in your genes?

S.U.

Genes are effectively the instructions our bodies contain programmed into our cells. They are structured into chromosomes, and most cells contain 23 pairs of chromosomes — one member of each pair from the mother and one from the father.

The Y-chromosome, belonging to men, is good for genetic tracing because it does not exchange information with X (the female chromosome), so that it remains mostly unchanged down the generations of men in a family.

Genes have been studied since World War I, when doctors noticed that wounded soldiers sometimes died from blood transfusions, which led to the discovery of blood types. But DNA testing, which affords the most precise information about people to date, did not begin until the 1980s.

The study of the human genome has enabled researchers to better understand the evolution and migrations of human populations, with some results appearing to contradict long-held theories learned in history class.

This is what Oppenheimer maintains about Britain and Ireland, where the story about the Celts and the Anglo- Saxon invaders, he says, is based on faulty historical records from the Middle Ages and the 19th century.

And according to his findings, three quarters of British people’s ancestors arrived as hunters-gatherers between 7,500 and 15,000 years ago, after the melting of the ice caps, but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands.

The first settlers were unlikely to have spoken a Celtic language, but possibly a tongue related to the unique Basque language, explains Oppenheimer in his book, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story. His findings contradict the long-held theory that Celts and Anglo-Saxons are the principle ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations. Neither of those groups, says Oppenheimer, had much more impact than the Vikings, the Normans or even immigrants of the past 50 years — that is to say, around five percent of the British Isles’ gene pool.

“Based on the overall genetic perspective of the British, it seems that Celts, Belgians, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans were all immigrant minorities compared with the first unnamed Basque pioneers who first ventured into the empty, chilly lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets,” writes Oppenheimer in his book.

Academic skeptic

But not everyone is convinced by Oppenheimer’s extraordinary argument.

“Parallels have been found in some genes between samples of British populations and samples of Basque populations, and also between the latter and populations in northern Africa. But that does not mean that the Basques originated in northern Africa or that they are the ancestors of the British,” says José Ángel Peña, a professor and researcher at the University of the Basque Country’s genetics department, who has spent years studying population movements in Europe and the Basques in particular.

In fact, he believes it would be more correct to call the people who lived in this region “European” rather than “Basque.”

Right now we cannot say, analyzing a person’s genes, whether they are Basque or African

José Ángel Peña, researcher

“Today’s Basques are as different from those first dwellers of the ice-refuge as the British are. The people who live here now are not aborigines who have remained frozen for the last 15,000 years, they have evolved as well,” he says. “The British have a common genetic heritage with other Europeans, which does not make them Basques. You could find elements in common between the British and the Basques, but also between the British and other European populations.”

What is clear, says Peña, is that during the ice age there were a few human and animal refuges in southern Europe, and that a main one was located in the southern France-northern Spain area.

When the glaciers started retreating, it is likely that the mammoths followed them in search of the vegetation that grew in their wake. And some humans followed the mammoths, slowly repopulating Europe and leaving their mark on the genes of following generations across the continent.

This repopulation of Europe from the southern refuges was the main process that modeled Europe’s genetic heritage, says Peña.

Nowadays, there are genetic traces of those original people, as well as traces of all the changes that took place in the following millennia, including influences from other regions such as northern Africa or the Middle East.

If the origins of the British are starting to sound confusing, try finding out the origins of the Basques themselves. There are literally hundreds of theories out there linking them to every possible part of the world, from Azerbaijan to the Berber region of Africa.

In one recent conference on the human genome in Barcelona, Peña recalls hearing a wild range of theories.

“We heard consecutively that the Basques were the oldest population in Europe, the youngest population in Europe, that they were related to the Sards, that they had nothing to do with the Sards, that they were a very homogeneous population and that they were a very heterogeneous population. And all that was said by people who often worked with the same sample.”

Today’s Basques are as different from those first dwellers of the ice-refuge as the British are”

José Ángel Peña, researcher

The problem, he says, is not just about doing proper sampling and running rigorous tests in the lab— which does not always happen— it’s also the fact that DNA samples for Basques are not as clear as they are for other European populations.

Basques are a case unto themselves, he says, because some fragments of their DNA show strange behavior. “So if you only take into account small fragments of DNA, then you can come up with odd, or even absurd results.”

The fact is, genetic research is not yet far advanced enough for scientists to be able to clearly place an individual according to his or her genes.

“Right now we cannot say, analyzing a person’s genes, whether they are Basque or African.What I do know is the probability of that person belonging to each group. There could be more differences between two neighbors living in the same building here in the Basque Country than between a given Basque and a given Senegalese. It’s very easy to argue against racism, because it’s almost impossible to genetically differentiate between a black and a white person.”

But this clearly does not stop the scores of researchers who periodically come up with new “evidence” on Basque origins.

“When an anthropologist in Europe has acquired a certain renown, or when he wants to acquire it, he usually publishes something about the Basques, because they are just about the quaintest population in Europe,” says Peña. “But in order to submit a hypothesis you need a minimum set of data to begin with, and often there’s not even that.”