For decades, anthropologists have been baffled by a unique language and ancestry belonging to the Basque Country, located in Northern Spain and Southern France. Finally, scientists have determined the origins of the Basque due to the recent discovery and results of eight ancient Iberian skeletons found in a cave in Northern Spain.
Some earlier theories suggested the Basque were descendants of indigenous hunters, whereas others said they were pure descendants of the first modern humans to arrive on the continent of Europe. However, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal has since indicated their ancestry spawns from early farmers who mixed with local hunters on their way to Iberia before becoming “isolated for millennia” according to the BBC.
“It was just four to five years ago when it became generally accepted that the early farmers in Europe were migrants from the south and east who spread out as opposed to the theory that farming spread throughout Europe by cultural diffusion or rather by word of mouth,” thesis student and anthropology AOC Garrett Murto said. “It is because of this that the Basques were considered to be descendants of isolated hunter-gatherers; they don’t exhibit the genetic similarity to eastern and southern Europeans so therefore they cannot have been farmers during the Neolithic.”
The Basque have a unique language, Euskera, that does not resemble any other language spoken in the world, yet caught between Spain and France, they have distinct genetic qualities similar to their bordering countries.
By studying the Iberian skeletons found in the archaeological site Atapuerca, a population geneticist, Mattias Jakobsson, and his team from Uppsala University in Sweden discovered the genomes that are the closest ancestors to what are now the present-day Basques.
“Our results show that the Basques trace their ancestry to early farming groups from Iberia, which contradicts previous views of them being a remnant population that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups,” Jakobsson said in an interview with phys.org, a science, research and technology news website.
These findings give insight to the demographic processes that took place in Europe and Iberia within the past 5,000 years.
“Every year we find human and animal bones and artifacts, including stone tools, ceramics, bone artifacts and metal objects,” Dr. Cristina Valdiosera said in an interview with phys.org. “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.”
According to the BBC, the same migrant group who introduced it to both central and northern Europe brought agriculture to Iberia. This group expanded from the Near East around 7,000 years ago beginning what is known as the Neolithic period. Once these groups settled down, they began to interact and mix with the local hunters and gatherers, indicating the skeletons found were more closely related to a hunter-gatherer ancestry than a pioneer farmer one.
After the migrant farmers and hunters were mixed, they became isolated from other European groups, unaffected by the spread of Indo-European language and culture like its neighboring countries.
“This reminds us that culture is not static even though in some instances like the origins of the Basques, people still can slip dangerously close to making that argument,” Murto said. “The Basques are a genetically isolated population […] There is no reason to think that the early ancestors of the Basques were not involved with other populations in their area and that there was not an exchange of ideas occurring. The dissemination of culture and the interactions between cultures can be correlative but is not reliant on a desire or reluctance to reproduce with members of other cultures.”
Information taken from: bbc.com, ancient-origins.net, pnas.org, phys.org, mynewsdesk.com