Scientists Believe they Have Found the Origins of the Unique Basque Culture
The Basque people have been an enigma to anthropologists for years. With a unique language, traditions, and customs, Basque origins have long been a mystery. Researchers now believe they have finally pinpointed the beginnings of this special group of people - from the results of a study of eight ancient skeletons found in a cave in northern Spain.
According to the BBC, by studying the genomes of human skeletons from El Portalón, Atapuerca, Mattias Jakobsson (a population geneticist) and his team from Uppsala University in Sweden believe that prehistoric Iberian farmers are the closest match to the modern Basques. This new information contradicts the previously held belief that the Basque ancestors we earlier groups of pre-agricultural hunter gatherers.
The cave of El Portalon is well-known to archaeologists, as Dr. Cristina Valdiosera, one of the lead authors in the current study said:
“The El Portalon cave is a fantastic site with amazing preservation of artifact material. Every year we find human and animal bones and artifacts, including stone tools, ceramics, bone artifacts and metal objects, it is like a detailed book of the last 10,000 years, providing a wonderful understanding of this period. The preservation of organic remains is great and this has enabled us to study the genetic material complementing the archaeology.”
Illustration of life at El Portalon Cave during the Neolithic and Copper Age (Maria de la Fuente)
The eight skeletons from the new study are evenly divided between males and females. There is one male child included in the burials. By using radiocarbon dating, it has been shown that the remains are from between 5,500 – 3,500 years ago (Chalcolithic period/Copper Age and Bronze Age). The later age of most of the individuals and the artifacts found with them (such as pottery) suggest that they were farmers, not hunter gatherers.
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Jakobsson and the team extracted DNA from the ancient ancestors and sequenced their genomes. They then took this information and compared their genetic profiles to various prehistoric and modern Europeans. The results showed that the ancient farmers had a mix of genes coming from earlier hunter-gatherers and other farming groups. However, the most shocking information is that the prehistoric farmers from the study are most closely related to modern Basques.
This information is surprising, and even the researchers admit that they did not expect this outcome. How can they explain the genetic and cultural uniqueness of the Basques, so linked to the eight El Portalon skeletons, yet so distinct from other European groups? The rationalization they have provided is that the ancient ancestors to the Basques arrived in the region, mixed with some other framers and hunter gatherers…and then were isolated.
One of the skeletons from the current El Portalon cave study (MyNewsDesk)
They are still uncertain exactly why the group became separated from others. Jakobsson told the BBC: “It's hard to speculate, but we've been working with Basque historians and it's clear from the historical record that this area was very difficult to conquer.”
"One of the great things about working with ancient DNA is that the data obtained is like opening a time capsule. Seeing the similarities between modern Basques and these early farmers directly tells us that Basques remained relatively isolated for the last 5,000 years but not much longer," Dr. Torsten Günther told Phys.org.
5,000 years is still a relatively long time for a culture. That time has provided sufficient differences between the modern Basques and non-Basques living in the Iberian region. The unique non Indo-European language used by Basques is just one of the features still unexplained.
Title page of a Medieval Basque Language Book (Wikimedia Commons)
Spoken language is not identified by artifacts or genes, thus modern researchers can only make assumptions on what could be the origins of Euskara (the Basque language.) Researchers in the current study have suggested that the early farmers from this study passed on a language that was present before the Indo-European languages swept across the continent. Nonetheless, they agree that it may be instead that the Basque language predates the farmers and descended from earlier hunter gatherers who maintained their language despite the incoming farmers. Ez dakigu…
Featured Image: Basque women in Bayonne (1852) (Wikimedia Commons)
By: Alicia McDermott