To say that the Basque are enigmatic is a bit of an understatement.
Theirs is the only Western European tongue that does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Written Basque features an extraordinary number of x’s and relatively few vowels.
There is a legend that says the Devil tried to learn Basque by listening behind the door of a Basque farmhouse. After seven years, he mastered but two words: “Yes, Ma’am.”
In addition to the language, the genetic makeup of the Basque has also puzzled researchers.
Now, it appears a team of geneticists have made progress in solving the mystery behind the Basques, who reside in northern Spain and southern France.
A study in PNAS journal suggests they descended from early farmers who mixed with local hunters before becoming isolated for as much as five millennia, according to the BBC.
Not only is their language unrelated to any other spoken tongue in the world, they Basques also show distinct genetic patterns compared to their neighbors in France and Spain.
“It seemed logical that they were representatives of an older layer of population settlement, but just how far back their roots went has been a topic of debate,” the BBC reported.
Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden analyzed the genomes of eight Stone Age human skeletons from northern Spain.
These individuals lived between 3,500 and 5,500 years ago, and the results show that these early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors to present-day Basques, the BBC added.
“Comparisons with other ancient European farmers show that agriculture was brought to Iberia by the same migrant groups that introduced it to central and northern Europe. These pioneers expanded from a homeland in the Near East, sweeping across Europe about 7,000 years ago to usher in the period known as the Neolithic,” the media outlet reported. “Once the farmers settled down, they mixed with local hunter-gatherers – the descendants of people who lived in Europe during the last Ice Age.”
The new study also goes some way to explaining some of the differences between the Basques and their neighbors in France and Spain.
After the initial farmer-hunter mixture was set, the ancestors of the Basques became isolated from surrounding groups – possibly due to a combination of geography and culture.
“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,” said Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University.
This means the Basque area was largely unaffected by subsequent migrations that shaped genetic patterns elsewhere in Europe.
(Top: Protestors in Pamplona, Spain, hold up a Basque-language sign demanding equal access to educations and social services in Basque.)